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Exercising during breast cancer treatment

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).

"We know that during and after treatment, exercise has a definite impact on cancer survivors' quality of life," says Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, nutrition and physical activity director at the ACS.

For example, exercise can help reduce stress and anxiety, increase self-esteem, and lower the risk of depression.

"Especially at a time of cancer diagnosis, you feel such loss of control—about your course of treatment, your reaction to the treatment" and so on, Doyle says. "We know that making a decision to exercise is a key way to exert some control in that whole experience."

But that's not all. Some research shows physical activity may improve survival rates and reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence. Exercise can also help women increase cardiovascular fitness, build muscle strength, overcome fatigue and help with weight control, Doyle says.

Weight control may be especially important for women who have breast cancer. Those who are overweight or obese when diagnosed are more likely than others to have poorer outcomes. Physical activity, along with a proper diet, is 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. He or she 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 get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week (or an equivalent combination), preferably spread throughout the week. A brisk walk is considered moderate exercise. Skating, canoeing, golfing and other similar activities also qualify.

Strength training also can be important and may have particular benefits for women after breast cancer surgery. For example, the right exercises can help restore arm and shoulder motion as well as strength after an operation.

Staying safe

"Most exercise prescriptions are going to have you start slow and build slow," Doyle says. There also could be some additional limitations. According to Doyle and the ACS:

  • Don't exercise if you have anemia. Wait until your red blood 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. Chlorine in a swimming pool may also 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—by using a recumbent bicycle instead of a treadmill, for example.

Finding the energy

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. Actually, though, regular exercise is a good way to overcome fatigue.

"It's counterintuitive, but there is some evidence that when you're fatigued, small bouts of exercise can really help with that energy level," Doyle says.

Overall, the goal is to stay as active as you can.

"Don't beat yourself up if you don't always feel like exercising," she says. "But when you're up for it, it's a really good thing to be doing for both your emotional health and your physical health."

Reviewed 4/24/2020

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