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Exercise during breast cancer treatment: It's a healthy choice

Two middle-aged women walking outside.

The benefits of exercise don't stop after a breast cancer diagnosis. In fact, physical activity, even during treatment, is a great way to improve strength and fitness and maintain your quality of life.

You might think a breast cancer diagnosis would be a pretty clear signal to slow down and conserve your strength for the journey ahead. But, in most cases, experts say just the opposite is true.

Exercise can be one of the healthiest things a woman with breast cancer can do, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Exercise can help reduce stress and anxiety, increase self-esteem, and lower the risk of depression. Some research shows physical activity can improve survival rates and reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence. Exercise can also help women:

  • Increase cardiovascular fitness.
  • Build muscle strength.
  • Overcome fatigue.
  • Help with weight control.

Weight control may be especially important for women who have breast cancer, since treatment can cause a significant amount of weight gain or loss. Physical activity, along with a proper diet, is a great way to take off pounds if you need to.

Getting started

If you’d like to start an exercise program, talk to your doctor first. They may suggest working with a physical therapist or another expert familiar with people affected by cancer. The right exercise program will take into account the cancer treatments you're receiving and your current levels of stamina, strength and fitness.

The ACS recommends that adults with stable disease get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity each week, preferably spread throughout the week. A brisk walk is considered moderate exercise. So is leisurely bicycling, skating, golfing and doubles tennis.

Strength training is also important on at least two days per week.

Staying safe

Whether you're in treatment or finished with chemotherapy and radiation, you should probably start and continue to go slow with exercise. There also could be some additional limitations. According to the ACS:

  • You may not be able to exercise if you have anemia. Talk to your doctor. You may need to wait to exercise until your red blood cell count is back to normal.
  • If your immune system is weakened, avoid public gyms and other places where you may be more likely to encounter germs.
  • To avoid infection, don't swim if you have a catheter. Also, chlorine in a swimming pool may irritate skin exposed to radiation treatment.
  • If your treatment causes numbness in your feet or balance problems, take steps to reduce your risk of falls while exercising—by using a recumbent bicycle instead of a treadmill, for example.

Many women find that breast cancer treatments take a lot out of them. It's normal to expect that, on some days, exercise will be the last thing on your mind. But regular exercise is a good way to overcome fatigue.

Overall, the goal is to stay as active as you can. It's good for both your emotional and physical health.

Reviewed 11/3/2023

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