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The Benefits of Physical Exercise After Breast Cancer

It’s important to start exercising as soon as possible, preferably before or during the course of adjuvant treatment. The sooner you start, the less likely you are to get stuck in the vicious cycle of feeling fatigued, not exercising, feeling more fatigued and even less willing to exercise, and so on. Once you start, you will probably find yourself eager and motivated to continue. Studies have found that breast cancer survivors who were instructed to exercise were very motivated to do so and were able to stick with the program.

Why You Might Want to Start Exercising—Now!

Exercise may be the last thing you feel like doing after breast cancer surgery. You’re probably exhausted, your arm may be painful and swollen, and the adjuvant treatments (chemotherapy, radiation or hormone therapy) can make you feel even worse. All you want to do is rest. In the past, that’s exactly what doctors recommended. Breast cancer survivors were told to get plenty of bed rest and not to strain themselves.

Advice on the subject has definitely changed in the last several years. Your doctor or nurse may already have recommended a moderate exercise program to aid recovery and boost your quality of life after surgery. If they didn’t, ask them about it. Recent studies indicate a link between moderate physical exercise and improved quality of life for breast cancer survivors.

This doesn’t mean you should go back to your rigorous aerobics or weight training routines. Work with your health care team to find the right balance of exercise for your level of fitness and ability. Exercise for breast cancer survivors usually includes physical therapy to improve strength and range of motion in the arm, and moderate aerobic exercise (like walking) for about 30 minutes, three or more times a week.

It’s important to start exercising as soon as possible, preferably before or during the course of adjuvant treatment. The sooner you start, the less likely you are to get stuck in the vicious cycle of feeling fatigued, not exercising, feeling more fatigued and even less willing to exercise, and so on. Once you start, you will probably find yourself eager and motivated to continue. Studies found that breast cancer survivors who were instructed to exercise were very motivated to do so and were able to stick with the program.

Still not convinced? Here are some of the benefits that physical exercise can have on improving your quality of life:

  • improved self-image
  • increased sense of control
  • improved strength and motion in your arm after surgery
And these are some of the symptoms associated with adjuvant therapies and post-surgery recovery that physical exercise can help to alleviate:
  • fatigue
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • weight gain
  • difficulty sleeping

An added bonus of getting into a good exercise routine is that it can help you to deal with the physical problems of advanced age, such as heart disease, that are not related to cancer. As a survivor, exercise is an important part of planning for your future.

Here are a few things to remember about physical exercise for breast cancer survivors:

Note: The studies on physical exercise and breast cancer survivors focused mainly on stage I and stage II patients. There is little research to date on exercise for advanced cancer patients. If you have advanced cancer, consult with your doctor before undertaking any kind of exercise.

No matter what stage of cancer you are recovering from, always discuss your exercise plan with your health care team. Report any difficulties or new symptoms (such as feeling faint or pain that doesn’t go away after exercise) and work on finding the right level of activity for you.

Start moderately and gradually, working up to your optimal level of activity.

If you prefer a structured exercise routine, inquire about special exercise programs for cancer survivors in your area.

The best exercise is walking—it’s cheap, it’s easy and you can do it alone, with a friend, or in a group, whatever works best for you.