Lack of exercise led to 500 cancer deaths in Ireland in five years, study shows

Research finds adequate activity could have prevented 1,500 cases between 2011 and 2015

The study, published in this month’s Irish Medical Journal, found women were disproportionately affected. Photograph: iStock

Inadequate physical activity led to about 1,500 cancer cases and 500 deaths in Ireland between 2011 and 2015, a new study has found.

The research, the first of its kind in this country, showed up to 5 per cent of total cancer cases and 6 per cent of deaths in the period were caused by not getting enough exercise. There are almost 24,000 incident invasive cancers, excluding non-melanoma skin cancer, and more than 9,000 cancer deaths per year in Ireland.

The study, published in this month's Irish Medical Journal, found women were disproportionately affected.

One of the study's authors, Dr Desmond Hickey from the National Cancer Control programme, said: "Amongst women it was estimated over 1,000 incident cases and 300 deaths were potentially preventable, compared with 500 incident cases and more than 200 deaths in men."


Over the five-year period, 210 colorectal cancer deaths were estimated to be preventable in men (7 per cent) and 162 in women (8 per cent).

Of 407 endometrial cancer deaths, 77 or 19 per cent were estimated to be preventable.

Dr Hickey said there was significant evidence that physical activity protects against several cancers by promoting endogenous steroid hormone metabolism, decreasing circulation of oestrogens and androgens and reducing insulin resistance and long-term inflammation.

“This is the first study to calculate the Population Attributable Fraction (PAF) of inadequate physical activity on cancer incidence and mortality in Ireland,” Dr Hickey said.

National Cancer Registry Ireland predicts that annual breast cancer incidence will increase by more than 60 per cent by 2045.

Of 3,496 female breast cancer deaths, Dr Hickey’s study found 85 or 2 per cent were preventable.

“This equated to over 300 potentially preventable incident cancers and 80 deaths in the relevant time period which underscores the importance of this avoidable exposure in the female population,” he said.