Returning to Exercise After Breast Cancer


Each year thousands of women in Australia undergo surgery for breast cancer. The disease accounts for almost 30% of all cancers in Australian women, and 15% of all female deaths from cancer. If diagnosed early, breast cancer survival is 90%. Exercise is now shown to be vital in a patient’s full recovery.1

There has been much research carried out over the past decade on the link between exercise and quality of life in cancer survivors.

Mild exercise while undergoing cancer treatment, may assist a patient’s ability to tolerate chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

A more structured program of exercise and rehabilitation, both short and long term, can assist cancer survivors to have a better quality of life.2

Weight gain is a common long term side effect of breast cancer treatment, that negatively affects outcomes. Mild exercise every day (as little as 10 minutes a day initially) can provide a myriad of psychological and physiological benefits:

  • An increased sense of well-being
  • Less joint pain in patients undergoing treatment
  • Improved strength and muscle endurance
  • A more positive outlook
  • Improved sleep patterns
  • More energy
  • Accelerated recovery of the surgical wound following surgery
  • Bone mineral density is preserved

Researchers at the Wake Forest University, North Carolina, found that a mere 6 minute walk provided patients with increased confidence in their ability to try other forms of exercise such as lifting weights. Other benefits included faster recovery time from cancer therapy, a more positive outlook, and greater self-esteem.

Exercise has also been found to reduce joint pain in patients as a result of breast cancer drugs (aromatase inhibitors).

Researchers at Yale University studied 121 post menopausal women who were being treated for breast cancer. Following 12 months of structured exercise, participants recorded a 20% reduction in joint pain.3

What Is The Best Way To Exercise

1. Aerobic

Walking is the best form of aerobic activity for breast cancer survivors and patients. It is a low impact exercise that will not exacerbate joint pain. The general rule of thumb concerning aerobic activity is a minimum of 2.5 hours of moderate intensity exercise weekly.

A new study has found that running is thought to be even better for breast cancer survivors. Aside from the obvious weight loss benefits resulting from the high impact activity, researchers also found that running also lowered a participant’s risk for breast cancer mortality.4

Other forms of suitable aerobic activity are swimming, cycling, gardening such as raking leaves or pruning small twigs, and of course walking.

How intense you want your exercise depends greatly on your energy levels and physical ability. Swimming for some women may be out of the question if range of movement is limited in the shoulder.

2. Strength Training

Body weight exercises, using weight machines or lifting free weights, all result in definite advantages for breast cancer patients and survivors. Results from studies in recent years have shown that bone mineral density can be preserved in older breast cancer survivors. Women have a lower risk of breaking bones during a fall.
Following breast cancer treatment muscle wastage is common, resulting in a marked lowering of muscular strength.

Strength training can raise strength levels, retarding the combined effects that aging and cancer treatment have on muscle mass wastage.

In essence, a weekly routine of strength training can reduce the risk of falls, lower body fat and subsequently provide a better health outcome.

If you have full range of movement in your joints, consider strength training under the professional guidance of a personal trainer or physiotherapist.

The use of light and moderate weights is allowable but stay away from lifting heavy weights.

3. Core Strengthening

Exercises to strengthen the core musculature of the glutes, lower back, and the abdominals (upper, lower and oblique’s or ‘side abdominals’) are always necessary whether or not you are recovering from surgery or illness.

Possessing a strong core will assist in a faster recovery, allow you to gain maximum strength by supporting your limbs with activities involving lifting, turning, twisting and stepping sideways or backwards.

4. Flexibility

Improving joint and muscle range of movement (ROM) is an important component of any fitness program and even more so if you are recovering from breast cancer surgery or treatment.

Learning deep breathing techniques will also assist in improving joint movement by allowing the muscles to relax and move freely.

Deep breathing also helps with pain management following breast surgery.

Shoulder movement will be restricted following surgery for breast reconstruction so it makes good sense to try some stretching. Ask your physiotherapist for some exercises.

Classes such as Yoga and Mind/Body may help. Always tell the instructor of your condition at the start of the class. In this way he/she will be able to give you appropriate exercises.


The vast amount of research carried out in the past decade has revealed the overwhelming benefits of exercise for breast cancer survivors. Aerobic and strength training are needed for a full recovery along with strengthening of the core muscles and greater flexibility.

Of course, the type of fitness you can undergo depends on your physical ability and recovery from cancer treatment.

That is why it is imperative you seek medical clearance from your specialist or doctor before embarking on any fitness program.

Once you have the all-clear from your doctor, it is recommended you hire the services of a personal trainer with experience and a working knowledge of post-surgical rehabilitation and/or breast cancer rehabilitation. Your trainer can provide you with an appropriate program of exercises to follow either at home or at your local fitness centre.

A personal trainer also can monitor your weight loss progression over the ensuing weeks and months, as well as provide motivation and guidance.