Exercise and Breast Cancer

by acac Personal Trainer, Margreta Rempert

We all know that exercise can lower our risk of developing various health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.  But did you know that exercise also plays an important role in managing the side effects of and recovering from many types of cancer treatment?

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and in honor of the women (and men) fighting breast cancer and beyond, here are some guidelines for exercising through the toughest fight of your life.

Exercising During Treatment

Starting or maintaining an exercise program throughout treatment may help ease the unpleasant side effects of treatment.

The benefits: Increased energy, self-esteem, sleep and treatment tolerance. Decreased pain, lethargy and depression.

Note: While under treatment, it’s important to review planned activities with your oncologist. Most doctors support walking, yoga, pilates, tai chi, light strength training and other low-impact aerobics.  Your ability to exercise while in treatment will depend on many factors including: type of treatment, tolerance to treatment, surgeries performed, and prior exercise history.

The Best Exercises: If you’re not sure where to start, I suggest walking, especially if you are just out of surgery.  It’ll help you judge your current level of fatigue and whether to try other activities as you make headway with treatments. It’s important that you rest frequently, hydrate properly and be mindful of not overextending yourself during this delicate time.  It’s also a good idea to have a walking partner or personal trainer who can monitor your routine and provide guidance.

Exercising After Treatment

Regardless if you are just finishing treatment or a 15 year survivor, exercise after treatment plays an important role in reaching health goals and returning to normal everyday activities during the healing process. Posture, range of motion, and strength are often affected by surgery, treatments, and reconstruction. Many people receive physical therapy after surgery but are released before reaching full range of motion.  It’s important to continue this work with the areas affected and shift your focus to balancing muscular strength and flexibility.

The benefits: Improved range of motion, flexibility, stamina, self-esteem, sleep, and weight management. Decreased depression.

Note: If you didn’t exercise through treatment, start with lighter intensity exercise.  If you exercised through treatment, begin to add intensity (slowly) and additional forms of exercise to build up your stamina. 

What Exercises are Safe for Breast Cancer Fighters / Survivors?

One of the best cardiovascular exercises for breast cancer survivors is swimming.  Swimming allows the shoulders to stretch and strengthen in a buoyant environment. A warm water pool is a beneficial aid if you are also experiencing arthritis symptoms.  Additionally, walking, cycling, light strength training, yoga, and Pilates are all great choices for breast cancer patients.  Once cleared for physical activity, review with your oncologist your risk for lymphedema – this may determine which type of exercise is most appropriate for you.  

What is lymphedema and am I at risk?

Lymphedema is the swelling of body tissues when lymph nodes have been removed or radiated.  Most commonly seen in the arms and legs, it may also occur in the trunk.  It’s important to note that lymphedema may occur at any time during treatment, or after cancer treatments have completed.  Lymphedema is caused by heavy lifting, severe climate or temperature changes, flying, extreme water temperatures (ex. saunas or hot tubs), or vigorous repetitive movement against resistance.  If you are at risk for lymphedema, start slowly, adding a little bit of resistance at a time, if you notice any swelling or changes it the joints, get it checked out.  There are compression garments that can aid in controlling lymphedema so you can get back to the physical activities you enjoy.  

The key takeaway to remember for exercising with cancer is to keep your workout light initially and follow the guidelines above for progressing back to your normal or new fitness routine. Fight on!


Visit the club location nearest you to learn more about starting a fitness routine:

Charlottesville | Eagleview | Green Spring | Hunt Valley | Midlothian | Short Pump | Timonium | West Chester