Exercise and Breast Cancer Recovery

The American Cancer Society states in ‘A Breast Cancer Journey’, that “there is growing evidence that regular physical activity may prevent breast cancer, especially in premenopausal women”.1  This statement is supported by a number of studies. Physical activity and fitness will help with the overall health of your immune system and can improve a breast cancer patient’s quality of life.

Exercise has long been shown to improve health and prevent disease. Obesity is associated with a higher risk of developing breast cancer, Type II Diabetes, heart disease and many other health problems. Obesity can be prevented by maintaining a regular exercise routine combined with a healthy diet. The American Diabetes Association strongly recommends including exercise as a part of your daily routine. They state that exercise can be fun if you do something you enjoy.2

The Benefits of Exercise for Breast Cancer Patients

Several studies conclude that breast cancer patients who maintained an exercise routine throughout treatment had a better quality of life than those who did not exercise.3 These studies typically separate exercise into two categories, aerobic and strength training. Aerobic exercise is characterized by an elevated heart rate and respiratory rate, which creates an oxygen demand in the body. Strength training uses weights and is designed to build muscle by breaking it down and allowing the body to regenerate it and increase muscle size.

A large study concerning exercise and breast cancer patients who were undergoing chemotherapy was completed in Canada.  The patients were assigned to perform either aerobic exercises or strength training during the study. There was also a control group that was asked not to do any kind of exercise at all.

The study showed that all of the patients in both groups that exercised completed their chemotherapy faster than the control group and had higher self-esteem, physical fitness, and were able to decrease their body fat percentage by the end of the study. There was a negative correlation between depression, anxiety and fatigue and the amount of exercise per patient in each group, but this was not statistically significant. There was no sign of complications due to exercise in either group. Lastly, there was no proven benefit of one type of exercise over another.

The Best Type of Exercise is the One That You Enjoy

It is important to have goals in your fitness program, which is why it may be of benefit to work with a fitness trainer or physical therapist to determine what activities will help you reach your goal. They can also help you find activities that fit your lifestyle and what you are physically able to do. Keep in mind that a fitness program that is enjoyable, practical and can be done with minimal reorganization of your schedule is likely going to be sustainable. Exercise routines that are impractical, expensive and not enjoyable are more likely to make you want to stop them.

Many of these findings in studies are applicable to everyone, not just breast cancer patients. Exercise is essential for good health, but it must be incorporated into your lifestyle in a way that you can commit to it. Without a true commitment, it is easy to put off or skip exercising. While structured exercise is important, some daily activities can also count as exercise. Walking to the grocery store or taking a walk around the block in the mornings or evenings, mowing the lawn, playing with the kids or dog in the yard and vacuuming are all daily activities that involve exercise. Swimming, jogging, hiking, and bicycling are also great options to add exercise into your daily life, that doesn’t necessarily feel like exercise.

Get creative with your exercise program. Start a neighborhood walking club, join a softball team or a lawn bowling association, go golfing with some friends to add socialization to your exercise program. There may even be a breast cancer support group in your area that already has groups and activities like these in place, where you can get your exercise as well as support, friendship and understanding for your situation.


1 American Cancer Society. (2004). A Breast Cancer Journey: Your Personal Guidebook. Atlanta: American Cancer Society, p. 313.

2 Food And Fitness. (n.d.). Retrieved from American Diabetes Association: www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/fitness/

3 McNeely, M. L., Campbell, K. L., Rowe, B. H., et al. (2006). Effects of exercise on breast cancer patients and survivors: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Canadian Medical Association Journal , 34-41.

4 Courneya, K., Segal, R. J., Mackey, J. R., et al. (2007). Effects of Aerobic and Resistance Exercise in Breast Cancer Patients Receiving Adjuvant Chemotherapy: A Multicenter Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Clinical Oncology , 4396-4404.

This article was originally published on July 27,2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/2/2015.