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Physical activity a key in preventing some cancers

07 February 2011 -- Low levels of physical activity are associated with a high risk of colon cancer and breast cancer.

Transcript of the podcast

Veronica Riemer: You're listening to the WHO podcast and my name is Veronica Riemer. In early February we mark World Cancer Day. We look at cancer risks and how physical activity can play a key role in preventing some cancers.

Chris Wild: The research over the last 20 years or so in fact indicates that low levels of physical activity are associated with a high risk of colon cancer and there is also reasonably strong evidence that the same is true for breast cancer.

Veronica Riemer: That was Chris Wild, Director of the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer also known as IARC based in Lyon, France.

Chris Wild: The cancers that have been linked to physical inactivity notably colon and breast cancers are particularly common ones in the more developed countries. The recent estimate was attempted in 15 European countries for six types of cancer. That estimate reported between 165 000 to 330 000 cases of cancer could have been prevented in 2008 if the population had maintained sufficient levels of physical activity.

Veronica Riemer:There is a sharp decline in physical activity in high-income countries and those in economic transition. There is less and less physical activity in our daily lives, at work and at home, as well getting from place to place. A similar trend is beginning to emerge in some developing countries.

While inactivity is one of the main risk factors for breast and colon cancers, other factors, ever present in our daily lives, have been identified. Tobacco, harmful use of alcohol, poor diet and too much sun exposure are linked to cancer. Chronic infections with viruses such as those which cause Hepatitis B and C or human papiloma virus are also risk factors for cancer. Dr Eduardo Cazap, President of the Union for the International Control of Cancer, explains that one of the big problems facing developing countries is the lack of awareness about the seriousness of the cancer threat.

Dr Eduardo Cazap: Besides the fact that there are around 30 million new cases of cancer per year in the world, the situation is not very well faced in many regions of the world; perhaps due to lack of information or due to other priorities from the governmental point of view. World Cancer Day on 4 February of each year is to have an opportunity to launch key messages to a global audience. It is important because positive lifestyle choices reduce cancer risk.

Veronica Riemer: WHO has recently launched new global recommendations on physical activity for health. These guidelines indicate that people of all ages can reduce the risk of developing a noncommunicable disease, including breast and colon cancers. For example, as little as two and half hours of aerobic physical activity a week can reduce the risk of chronic diseases for people aged 18 and over.

One country which has introduced methods to improve the physical wellbeing of its people is Mexico. We spoke to Dr José Córdova Villalobos, Minister of Health on how Mexico is encouraging physical activity.

Dr José Córdova Villalobos: That is part of a strategy that we are implementing in the students' basic education - trying to promote physical activity all the time, every day - at least 30 minutes a day. It is one of the best ways to avoid obesity. We are promoting running and swimming, bike rides in all the country. We have a national programme promoting the bike use at least one or two times a week, especially at the weekend all the family together. We think it is a very complete exercise. The other one is at least trying to walk and don't use the elevator, use the stairs and trying to the exercise that is possible at the age that you have.

Veronica Riemer: Dr Eduardo Cazap of the UICC tells us that World Cancer Day is an opportunity to place the fight against cancer firmly on the global agenda.

Dr Eduardo Cazap: The World Cancer Day is one of the tools for this and the second will be the UN General Assembly Special session in September. This high-level meeting on non-communicable diseases is an unprecedented step in the battle against cancer and represents and opportunity for our generation to eliminate cancer as a life-threatening disease for future generations.

Veronica Riemer: WHO projects that global deaths from non-communicable diseases will continue to rise over the next 10 years, with deaths from these diseases expected to increase by more than 50% in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia by 2030. Increasing evidence shows that the impact of non-communicable diseases is eating away at development gains in many countries and make the Millennium Development Goals even harder to achieve.

In September countries from all corners of the world will convene in New York for a United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Non-Communicable Diseases. This will be only the second time in history that the Assembly calls such a high level meeting on a health issue.

If you would like more information please see the links at the bottom of the transcript page. For the World Health Organization, this is Veronica Riemer in Geneva.

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