The "Prevention Triangle": Exercise, Weight Control & Healthy Diet

Author: Christina Bach, MBE, LCSW, OSW-C
Last Reviewed: December 18, 2023

A healthy diet, regular physical activity, and maintaining a healthy weight can lower your risk of developing cancer. These three thing make up the "cancer prevention triangle". They are strongly related to each other. Working to improve one can often lead to improvements in another. After not smoking/using tobacco, these three things are the most effective to prevent cancer. An estimated 20-30% of cancers could be prevented if people incorporated the triangle into their lifestyle!

Healthy Diet

Try eating nutrient-rich foods. This means they have vitamins, minerals, and proteins to help fuel our bodies.

  • Try to highlight vegetables, beans and legumes, fruit, and whole grains.
  • Limit your intake of red meat and processed foods.
  • Choose water over soda and other sugary drinks.
  • Limit how much alcohol you drink. The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends no more than 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men.

Maintaining a Healthy Weight

The ACS recommends keeping body weight within a healthy range and trying to avoid gaining weight as you age. Being overweight and having a diet high in fat is related to the development of 13 cancer types. These include breast cancer (in postmenopausal women), cancers of the colon, rectum, endometrium (uterus), esophagus, kidney, pancreas, gall bladder, thyroid, ovary, cervix, liver, prostate, and multiple myeloma.

For cancer survivors, a healthy weight and regular physical activity are linked to lower rates of recurrence for several types of cancer, including breast and colon.

Physical Activity

Adults should try to get 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity (a brisk walk) activity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity (activity that increases your heart rate) physical activity each week.

These activities can be a combination of cardio, strength training, and flexibility/stretching. You should try to avoid having a “sedentary” lifestyle – a life with a lot of sitting or lying down and little exercise. Try to get up and move hourly during the work day, walk on the treadmill while binge-watching your favorite show, or join a community walking group.

Mix up your activities to find the best fit for yourself. Activity partners can help to keep you motivated and provide a reminder to move each day. It can be helpful to schedule your exercise time into your daily calendar.

Start with a goal you can achieve. If you have never exercised, a walk through the neighborhood is a way to start. Keep increasing your intensity (walk faster, carry weights) and/or distance over time. You should discuss your plans with your healthcare provider to be sure your exercise plan is safe for you.

You can reduce your risk of some cancers through behavior and lifestyle changes. Start small with goals you can achieve. Ask your healthcare provider for referrals to a dietitian to learn more about healthy eating. Get your friends and family involved and make it a team effort to improve your health and well-being.

Resources for More Information

Eat Healthy and Get Active at the American Cancer Society website.

Reduce Your Cancer Risk at the American Institute for Cancer Research.

The US Department of Health & Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines.

NIH AARP Diet & Health Study: a study developed at the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health to improve our understanding of the relationship between diet and health.

The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer & Nutrition (EPIC): A large study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer investigating the relationships between diet, nutritional status, lifestyle and environmental factors and the incidence of cancer and other chronic diseases.

Rock, C. L., Thomson, C., Gansler, T., Gapstur, S. M., McCullough, M. L., Patel, A. V., ... & Doyle, C. (2020). American Cancer Society guideline for diet and physical activity for cancer prevention. CA: a cancer journal for clinicians, 70(4), 245-271.

Shams-White, M. M., Brockton, N. T., Mitrou, P., Romaguera, D., Brown, S., Bender, A., ... & Reedy, J. (2019). Operationalizing the 2018 World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research (WCRF/AICR) cancer prevention recommendations: a standardized scoring system. Nutrients, 11(7), 1572.

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