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Exercising After Breast Cancer: Moving Toward Health

Treatments for breast cancer can take a toll on both your body and your emotions. The effects of the disease and treatment may make you become less active, more stressed, and unable to sleep well. And the worse you feel, the less active you tend to be. As a result, after treatment you may find that you lack the strength and energy to go back to the activities you did before your cancer diagnosis.

What can you do to gain strength and feel healthier and more like yourself again? Many women find that regular exercise can improve their fitness level and their mental outlook.

In addition, women who start an exercise program can help speed their recovery from cancer. Breast cancer can make you feel as though your body has failed you. But research shows that exercise can help you regain some control over your body and your life.

Benefits and precautions

Exercise offers many benefits to breast cancer survivors and to women who are having treatment. Exercise can help by doing these things:

  • Increase your fitness, which can help you return to your daily activities more quickly

  • Provide a sense of well-being, self-esteem, and a positive mood

  • Improve your ability to sleep

  • Reduce the side effects from treatment, such as extreme tiredness (fatigue)

  • Help control weight

Before starting an exercise program, get a checkup from your healthcare provider. You may have finished treatment and have no underlying health issues or major side effects from treatment. In that case, you often can follow an exercise program of your choice.

But if you are having treatment for breast cancer, speak with an exercise expert and check with their healthcare provider before starting. This is because many cancer treatments can weaken the body. In some cases, they can even affect the heart. If this is the case for you, you may need to follow a modified exercise routine. This will take your physical condition and type of treatment into account.

Many cancer centers have healthcare professionals in their departments of physical therapy or physical medicine and rehabilitation who work with people with cancer. They can discuss options with you and design a safe exercise program for you to follow. If you're in treatment and interested in exercising, ask your healthcare provider or health plan to refer you to one of these experts.

Getting started

Starting to exercise slowly is a good idea, especially if you were not in shape before your diagnosis. People who try to exercise almost every day may find that a small amount of exercise helps them get in the habit of working out in some way. This is true even if it's only 5 to 10 minutes a day. Working up to exercising 30 minutes a day is a good goal. That amount of time provides benefits for everyone. Research has shown that benefits can be seen even with lesser amounts of regular exercise. This is especially true for women who were not active before.

Walking, biking, or doing water exercises are good aerobic options. Walking is a natural and easy choice. It can be done anywhere at almost any time. Finding an exercise that you like is the key to sticking with it.

You should also think about lifting weights (strength training). Lifting weights can help keep your bones and muscles strong, especially after menopause. Some women worry that this type of exercise might worsen certain conditions linked to breast cancer, such as lymphedema. Lymphedema is swelling in the arm. It is caused by a buildup of lymph fluid on the side of the breast cancer. A recent study in women with this condition showed that strength training did not make lymphedema worse. But it's always a good idea to check with your healthcare provider before starting any exercise program.

Joining an exercise program at a fitness club is a good option for many people. Many fitness clubs around the country now offer special programs for cancer survivors. Local chapters of the American Cancer Society may have information on exercise programs for women with breast cancer.

Sticking with it

Perhaps the hardest part of an exercise program is sticking with it. Healthy people often drop out of exercise programs. This often happens within the first 3 to 6 months of starting one.

One way to stay motivated is to join an exercise group at a local fitness center. The social aspect can be an added benefit to working out. And fitness centers also offer personal trainers. They can help you stay motivated. Working out with a friend is another good idea, particularly when working out at home. Some studies have shown that walking in your neighborhood is more useful over time than working out at a fitness center. That's because it's easier to exercise near home than it is to travel for a workout.

People with cancer who are having treatment tend to stick with exercise at high rates. This may be because a cancer diagnosis can act as a wake-up call to not take your health for granted. Exercising and getting into good physical shape is an excellent way of taking charge of your overall health. Not only can it help you get through cancer treatment, it can also help you for the rest of your life.

Online Medical Reviewer: Gersten, Todd, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Stump-Sutliff, Kim, RN, MSN, AOCNS
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2018
© 2013 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.
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