Exercise and Breast Cancer: Benefits, Workouts, Safety

Exercise is key for disease prevention and treatment and improving overall quality of life, and this is especially true for both people with breast cancer and breast cancer survivors. Exercise can help reduce risk factors and negative side effects of treatment. This article will review the benefits of regular exercise during and after breast cancer treatment, types of exercise, and how exercise can decrease your risk of breast cancer recurrence. 

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Benefits of Exercise With Breast Cancer

Regular exercise is important for everyone, but there are particular benefits for people undergoing treatment for those with breast cancer and breast cancer survivors. A 2020 systematic review suggests that regular exercise can reduce breast cancer risk factors, reduce the negative side effects of breast cancer treatment, and improve the overall quality of life.

During Treatment 

Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are the main methods for treating breast cancer. Though these treatments are effective in killing cancer cells, they also cause a variety of negative side effects. Fatigue after chemotherapy is one of the most common and debilitating breast cancer treatment symptoms that can severely impact the quality of life, while radiation treatment is associated with side effects like fatigue, heart and lung issues, and swelling (lymphedema). Exercise can combat these negative side effects.

During breast cancer treatment, exercise can:

  • Improve muscle strength
  • Increase muscle mass
  • Improve cardiovascular endurance
  • Decrease fatigue
  • Reduce pain
  • Lessen anxiety and depression
  • Decrease blood levels of inflammatory markers

Throughout all studies examining the effects of exercise in patients undergoing breast cancer treatment, no adverse effects were associated with exercising.

After Treatment

Exercise also offers several benefits after completing breast cancer treatment, including:

  • Increased muscle strength
  • Greater muscle mass
  • Improved cardiovascular endurance
  • Decreased fatigue
  • Pain
  • Decreased anxiety and depression
  • Improved balance
  • Decreased bone breakdown
  • Improved overall quality of life

Lowering the Risk of Lymphedema

A 2020 systematic review reports that up to 20% of patients undergoing treatment for breast cancer develop upper body lymphedema, a condition characterized by increased swelling and fluid accumulation in the arms from damage to or blockage of the lymphatic system. Lymphedema can result from lymph node removal during surgery for breast cancer or from lymph node damage from radiation. Lymphedema also causes pain, tightness, decreased strength and range of motion, and impaired daily functions.

Regular exercise can help decrease lymphedema by improving circulation, which can help decrease swelling by directing the flow of lymph into lymph vessels, maintaining upper body strength and range of motion, and helping you maintain a healthy weight, which can reduce lymphedema swelling.

Exercise Examples 

Though there are no specific exercises recommendations for people with breast cancer or breast cancer survivors, general exercise recommendations include at least one of the following:

  • 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity
  • 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity
  • An equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous physical activity

Exercise intensity is grouped into the following categories:

  • Light intensity: walking slowly, cooking, light housework
  • Moderate intensity: brisk walking (2.4–4 miles per hour), bicycling (5–9 miles per hour), dancing, active yoga, recreational swimming, gardening, vacuuming, raking leaves
  • Vigorous intensity: jogging, running, hiking, bicycling (≥10 miles per hour), swimming laps, jumping rope, aerobics, weightlifting, stair climbing, snow shoveling

Staying Motivated

Making exercise enjoyable can help keep you motivated to stay active. You can try new and trendy workout classes, exercise with a friend, and listen to upbeat or relaxing music to help keep you going.

Cardio

Cardio, also known as cardiovascular exercise or aerobic exercise, is any activity that exercises your heart and lungs enough to pump oxygenated blood to your working muscles. Over time, regular aerobic exercise strengthens your heart and lungs, making them work more efficiently. Aerobic exercise includes:

  • Walking
  • Running
  • Hiking
  • Swimming
  • Jumping rope
  • Dancing
  • Bicycling
  • Jumping jacks
  • Stair climbing
  • Playing sports

An easy way to incorporate cardio exercise into your weekly routine is to go for a 30-minute walk every day.

Strength Training

Strength training is an exercise tailored specifically to increasing muscle strength through resistance training. Resistance can be applied in the form of:

  • Weights
  • Exercise machines
  • Resistance bands
  • Your own body weight with movements like push-ups, pull-ups, squats, lunges, and step-ups

Strength training should include a variety of exercises that target your upper and lower body and ideally be performed two to three days per week.

Does Exercise Reduce Risk of Recurrence?

Regular exercise can help keep you healthy to decrease your risk of breast cancer recurring and potential negative complications. Regular exercise increases the activity of various immune system cells, which can decrease the risk of breast cancer recurrence. 

Regular exercise of at least one hour per week can reduce the risk of breast cancer-related death in breast cancer survivors by 30–40%.

An increased risk of breast cancer recurrence is associated with increased levels of insulin, estrogen, and inflammatory markers like interleukins and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α), all of which are elevated when a person isn’t physically active. Regular exercise has been shown to decrease these elevated levels, significantly reducing the risk of breast cancer recurrence.

Summary

Regular exercise has proved to offer several benefits both during and after breast cancer treatment, including reducing pain, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and levels of inflammatory markers and increasing muscle mass, muscle strength, cardiovascular endurance, and overall quality of life. Regular exercise promotes a healthy lifestyle that can also reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence and breast cancer-related death. It is recommended to complete at least 150 minutes of exercise per week with a combination of cardio and strength training exercises.

A Word From Verywell

Regular exercise is key for decreasing inflammation throughout the body and promoting overall health to improve quality of life and life expectancy, especially if you have breast cancer or are a breast cancer survivor. If you don’t know where to start, consider consulting with a physical therapist or personal trainer to create a workout routine for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does exercise affect breast tumor growth?

    Exercise can decrease levels of insulin, estrogen, and inflammatory markers like interleukins and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α), all of which are elevated in people with breast cancer and thought to drive tumor growth in combination with increased body fat.

  • What exercises should you avoid with breast cancer?

    As long as you are cleared by your healthcare provider to exercise, there are no specific exercises that should be avoided.

  • Does exercise extend breast cancer life expectancy?

    Yes. Exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of death in breast cancer survivors by 30–40%.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Furmaniak AC, Menig M, Markes MH. Exercise for women receiving adjuvant therapy for breast cancer. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Sep 21;9(9):CD005001. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD005001.pub3. 

  3. Hasenoehrl T, Palma S, Ramazanova D, et al. Resistance exercise and breast cancer-related lymphedema-a systematic review update and meta-analysis. Support Care Cancer. 2020 Aug;28(8):3593-3603. doi: 10.1007/s00520-020-05521-x. 

  4. Department of Health & Human Services. 2018 physical activity guidelines advisory committee scientific report.

  5. Dieli-Conwright CM, Orozco BZ. Exercise after breast cancer treatment: Current perspectives. Breast Cancer (Dove Med Press). 2015 Oct 21;7:353-62. doi: 10.2147/BCTT.S82039.

  6. Schmidt T, van Mackelenbergh M, Wesch D, Mundhenke C. Physical activity influences the immune system of breast cancer patients. J Cancer Res Ther. 2017 Jul-Sep;13(3):392-398. doi:10.4103/0973-1482.150356.


By Kristen Gasnick, PT, DPT

Kristen Gasnick, PT, DPT, is a medical writer and a physical therapist at Holy Name Medical Center in New Jersey.

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