Every extra two hours spent sitting was associated with a 10 per cent increased chance of developing cancer of the womb lining in women, while bowel and lung cancer risk was raised by eight per cent and six per cent respectively.
The effect appeared to be unrelated to how much exercise people took when not sitting. This suggests that even in people who are generally physically active, sitting down for too long can increase cancer risk.
Scientists came to the conclusion after studying pooled data from 43 studies with more than four million participants and almost 70,000 cancer cases.
This kind of research -"meta-analysis" - can uncover trends that might be hidden from individual studies recruiting small numbers of people.
All the studies analysed probed lifestyle habits related to activity such as TV viewing and sitting time at work. Comparing the highest and lowest levels of sedentary behaviour revealed a statistically significant increased risk for the three cancers.
Study authors Daniela Schmid and Dr Michael Leitzmann, from the University of Regensburg in Germany, wrote in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute: "That sedentariness has a detrimental impact on cancer even among physically active persons implies that limiting the time spent sedentary may play an important role in preventing cancer."
Concerns have previously been raised about Scotland's couch potato lifestyle, with around 60 per cent of people classed as overweight. Along with diet, it is thought to lead to high rates of cancer, which affects around 30,000 people every year, and type 2 diabetes, which affects more than 200,000 Scots.
TV viewing time was most strongly associated with bowel and endometrial cancers - possibly because watching TV is often accompanied by eating junk food and drinking sweetened beverages, said the researchers.
The scientists pointed out that the link between sitting time and lung cancer was only marginally statistically significant.
In the studies analysed, the least amount of time people spent sitting down was about two or three hours. Each two hours per day increase in sitting time above this level was said to raise the risk of bowel, endometrial and lung cancer.