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Breast cancer patients: It’s time to exercise your fitness responsibility

Breast cancer patients: It’s time to exercise your fitness responsibilityDepending on the treatment plan and its physical toll, breast cancer patients often must approach exercise differently than healthy adults. Reduced stamina and muscle strength, combined with cumulative effects of chemotherapy and radiation, can make working out more difficult and less appealing than before.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, doesn’t differentiate between healthy adults and cancer patients in its recommendation to engage in at least 2.5 hours of moderate physical activity each week, combined with two days of muscle-strengthening workouts. Aside from boosting your mood and well-being, exercise can help patients avoid becoming overweight, a known risk factor for cancer development and recurrence.

“You have to listen to your body,” says Josie Gardiner, personal trainer and co-author of The Breast Cancer Survivor’s Fitness Plan. “If you’re totally fatigued, then give yourself permission to take a day off. But if you feel like you’re only slightly or moderately fatigued, anything you do is better than nothing.”

Aerobic Exercise

Activities that raise your heart rate for an extended period fall into this category, including swimming, walking, cycling, and running. They can help you feel better during and after treatment, and can speed recovery following surgery. However, says Gardiner, a cancer patient may not have enough energy for 30 minutes of continuous exercise a day. When that’s the case, doing 10 minutes of activity three times a day will provide the same benefits.

Strength Training

Research shows that training with weights helps maintain bone density and strength. And because chemotherapy can cause women to lose as much bone density in a year as the average woman would lose in a decade, strength training for breast cancer patients is crucial. Still, cancer patients should consult their physician before beginning a weight training regimen.


A strong sense of balance protects against exercise-related falls and injuries. And for cancer patients with impaired balance or weakened bones due to drugs or chemotherapy, a single fall can result in a debilitating broken bone. Simple exercises like walking a narrow path (as if on a tightrope), heel raises, and single-leg stands can improve balance.


Gently stretching areas affected by breast cancer surgery – like the rotator cuff in the shoulder – can help women regain mobility in those areas, explains Gardiner. “But they only want to go to the point of tightness, not pain.” Women should check with their doctor before beginning a stretching program.

Read more here about The Breast Cancer Survivor’s Fitness Plan. More information about the importance of exercise for cancer patients can be found at the Caring4Cancer website and at USA Today.

May 13, 2011