Most Americans know – by now – that exercising is good for you. What many of us don’t know – according to a new study – is that not exercising can raise our risk of certain types of cancer, such as colon and breast.

The study, published in the Journal of Health Communication, reports that US adult survey respondents were largely unaware of the cancer-related health dangers of an insufficient level of exercise.

Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis surveyed a socio-demographically diverse sample of 1,161 US participants. The researchers’ goal was to identify what types of diseases lay audiences believed are caused by insufficient levels of exercise.

They then randomly selected 351 participants and examined their answer to an open-ended question asking what illnesses are caused by insufficient physical activity.

They found that, although there was high awareness that inadequate levels of physical exercise increased the risk of cardiovascular (63.5%) and metabolic (65.8%) problems, an extremely low proportion of respondents associated it with increased risk of cancer (3.4%).

The authors suggest that the lack of public knowledge linking low levels of exercise some types of cancers is due to the focus public health campaigns have on communicating how it is beneficial for “heart health” and weight loss, and therefore failing to include the other health benefits.

For public audiences to better understand the risks associated with insufficient levels of exercise, the researchers propose that the first step would be to raise awareness by making these more of the focus of public health campaigns.

The authors report that the public may have little intention to change their behavior because they do not realize that it is problematic in the first place. Erika Waters, lead author of the study and Associate Professor of Surgery at Washington University in St. Louis commented, “People might be more likely to exercise if they understand just how important physical activity is to their overall health – not just their heart health.  

However, the authors also reiterate that to further clarify these hypotheses and to better understand public attitudes and understanding of the health risks from inadequate levels of exercise, further future studies should be conducted, to confirm or challenge these.