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5 Workouts for Breast Cancer Survivors

These gentle workouts can help ease pain, fatigue, stress, and weight gain.

Updated on July 17, 2023

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Exercise is an important part of staying healthy for everyone. But for breast cancer survivors, it can be a lifesaver. Studies suggest that survivors who exercise have less fatigue, pain, and stress, as well as fewer instances of breast cancer recurrence and lower breast cancer mortality rates.

A good workout also helps to clear your mind, gives your self-esteem a boost, and can help you feel like life is starting to get back to normal after long bouts of treatment.

Experts, like those at the American Cancer Society, recommend that cancer survivors work out about 150 minutes a week at a moderate pace. But always talk to a healthcare provider (HCP) before you begin any new exercise plan. Here are five gentle exercises to help you get started.

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Yoga

For a workout that heals the body and the mind, try yoga. A meta-analysis published in JNCI Cancer Spectrum in 2019 found that breast cancer survivors who practiced yoga experienced less fatigue and depression.

Yoga also helps relieve stress and anxiety, and can restore strength, flexibility, and vitality thanks to the meditative breathing common in most practices. And the more frequently you practice, the more benefits you’ll receive.

If you’re new to yoga, or are unsure how to begin, you may want to try this simple stress-relieving sequence to get started. Just be careful of poses that put too much weight on the arms. This could be painful, or in some cases, even harmful.

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Running (or Walking)

Walking and running are great ways to stay in shape after treatment, and both offer benefits to survivors.

A 2020 systematic review and meta-analysis of eight trials published in Integrative Cancer Therapies found that aerobic exercise (like walking and running), in general, reduced the risk of breast cancer recurrence by nearly 50 percent. Many experts, such as those at the American College of Sports Medicine, recommend that cancer survivors engage in moderate physical activity, such as walking, biking, or water aerobics, and work up to more vigorous activities like speed walking or jogging.

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Hiking

If you’re looking to catch a breath of fresh air during your post-cancer workout, grab a friend and head out on a hike.

Hiking is a low-impact exercise that can boost your mood, reduce anxiety, increase bone density (which is important after chemotherapy), and limit oxidative stress, which may make your body better able to fight off potential breast cancer recurrence. Oxidative stress refers to having too many unstable and potentially harmful molecules in the body without enough healthy antioxidants to combat them.

And when you go, don’t forget those walking poles. A systematic review published in the European Journal of Cancer Care in 2019 found that Nordic walking (walking with poles) had significant and positive impacts on multiple breast cancer symptoms, such as lymph node swelling, physical fitness, disability, and outlook. Walking with poles also helped improve range of motion in the shoulder.

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Arm and Shoulder Workouts

Arm and shoulder problems are common after breast cancer surgery. It can be tough getting dressed or washing your hair due to pain, swelling, numbness, weakness, and tingling. But gentle arm and shoulder workouts can help mitigate those effects, and maintain and improve your ability to move your arm. 

Speak to an HCP for specific suggestions to fit your physical ability and needs. The American Cancer Society recommends this series of exercises for the days following a procedure—but only with the go-ahead from your provider. 

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Gentle Weight Lifting

Many breast cancer survivors who’ve undergone surgery also experience a loss of strength and range of motion in their arms, back and shoulders. Invest in some light weights to give your upper body a boost.

Gentle weightlifting (using 2- to 3-pound weights) has shown to be safe for most breast cancer survivors, and may lower your risk for developing lymphedema, or swelling. A 2019 systematic review published in the International Journal of Nursing Sciences found that resistance exercise may help reduce lymphedema in those who already had it, and did not increase the risk of developing lymphedema in those who were at risk. Slow, progressive weightlifting can also prevent muscle deterioration and help increase functioning in the upper body.
 

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Tips for Staying Safe

As a cancer survivor, your body has been through a lot. And while exercise can help you regain your strength and peace of mind, it does pose a few risks.

Stay safe with these tips as you begin your new routine:

  • Work with your HCP. Before you jump into any exercise program, discuss which workout is best for you, as well as the risks involved.
  • Start slowly and remember to rest. Even a few minutes of exercise a day is beneficial, and you shouldn’t feel pressure to push yourself.
  • Ignore the phrase, “no pain, no gain.” If certain exercises are painful, stop and speak with your HCP about potential modifications.
Slideshow sources open slideshow sources

LaVoy ECP, Fagundes CP, Dantzer R. Exercise, inflammation, and fatigue in cancer survivors. Exercise immunology review. 2016;22:82-93. 
Reis AD, Pereira PTVT, Diniz RR, et al. Effect of exercise on pain and functional capacity in breast cancer patients. Health and Quality of Life Outcomes. 2018;16(1). 
Gosain R, Gage-Bouchard E, Ambrosone C, et al. Stress reduction strategies in breast cancer: review of pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic based strategies. Seminars in Immunopathology. 2020;42(6):719-734. 
Morishita S, Hamaue Y, Fukushima T, et al. Effect of Exercise on Mortality and Recurrence in Patients With Cancer: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Integrative Cancer Therapies. 2020;19:153473542091746. 
American Cancer Society. Physical Activity and the Person with Cancer. Page last updated March 16, 2022. 
Armer JS, Lutgendorf SK. The Impact of Yoga on Fatigue in Cancer Survivorship: A Meta-Analysis. JNCI Cancer Spectrum. 2020. 
Williams PT. Significantly greater reduction in breast cancer mortality from post-diagnosis running than walking. International Journal of Cancer. 2014;135(5):1195-1202. 
Obradović S, Tešin A. Hiking In the COVID-19 era: Motivation and Post-Outbreak Intentions. Journal of Sport & Tourism. 2022;26(2):147-164. 
Zhang Q, Guo M, Chen T, et al. Walking and taking vitamin C alleviates oxidative stress and inflammation in overweight students, even in the short-term. Frontiers in Public Health. 2022;10. 
Sánchez‐Lastra MA, Torres J, Martínez‐Lemos I, et al. Nordic walking for women with breast cancer: A systematic review. European Journal of Cancer Care. 2019;28(6). 
American Cancer Society. Exercises After Breast Cancer Surgery. Page last updated October 7, 2021. 
Wanchai A, Armer JM. Effects of weight-lifting or resistance exercise on breast cancer-related lymphedema: A systematic review. International Journal of Nursing Sciences. 2019;6(1):92-98. 
American College of Sports Medicine. Being Active When You Have Cancer. 2021
Wang F, Szabo A. Effects of Yoga on Stress Among Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 2020;26(4).
Zoogman S, Goldberg SB, Vousoura E, et al. Effect of yoga-based interventions for anxiety symptoms: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Spirituality in Clinical Practice. 2019;6(4):256-278. 
Campbell KL, Winters-Stone KM, et al. Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Survivors. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2019;51(11):2375-2390. 
National Institutes of Health. Exercise for Your Bone Health. October 2018. 
Lesser IA, Prystupa J, et al. A mixed-methods evaluation of a group based trail walking program to reduce anxiety in cancer survivors. Applied Cancer Research. 2020;40(1).

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