Exercise for Breast Cancer Prevention, Survival and Recovery

Exercise for Breast Cancer Prevention, Survival and Recovery

Holly Pinkham |

Did you know that one of the easiest ways to prevent breast cancer is with exercise?

Maybe you already knew that but are wondering what exactly qualifies as “exercise”? And what if you’re in treatment for breast cancer, or recovering? Is exercise still helpful, or can it be harmful?

This blog will give you answers to these questions so you can maintain your healthiest, happiest life!

woman doing bench press

Why Does Exercise Matter?

Breast cancer forms through a mutated cell in your body, a result of various possible factors, such as radiation, genetics, or carcinogens. The environment within your body also determines whether cancer can grow and spread. This is where physical activity comes in.

Exercise naturally decreases levels of inflammation, reduces stress, helps you maintain a healthy weight, and changes your body chemistry. These benefits affect your body in such a way that it becomes unwelcoming for cancerous growth.

The good news is that exercise is free, it can be done anywhere, and for prevention and recovery purposes, it doesn’t have to be crazy intense or painful. Which means, you’re more likely to do it!

What Counts as “Exercise”?

One study from the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill found that women who regularly participated in any recreational physical activity, regardless of intensity, reduced their risk for breast cancer. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, it reduces chances by about 23%. Additionally, if you are healthy and active prior to getting breast cancer, it improves your chances of survival.

It should be noted that the study also found that substantial weight gain may negate the effects of physical activity. This means the intensity level should be appropriate to the amount of weight you need to lose or activity needed to maintain a healthy weight. (Not sure what a healthy weight is? Try this calculator to determine if you need to gain or lose weight).

woman jogging outdoors with sun in sky

Whether you are concerned about preventing breast cancer due to your family history, are currently going through treatment, or are recovering, exercise recommendations remain somewhat the same. Individuals should discuss their fitness level, physical abilities, and exercise recommendations with their personal doctor prior to beginning any program.

Exercise Recommendations for Cancer Prevention

Any physical activity should be sustained for 20-30 minutes to start with at a moderate intensity level, meaning you can hold a conversation (not too easily), but you can’t sing. You can work your way up to longer periods of exercise, up to an hour or so. Increase your intensity level over time so you are working out more vigorously, meaning you might be able to say a few words, but you really can’t hold a conversation.

So, how much activity should you be doing?

  • 30+ minutes of moderate-intensity activity for 5+ days/week OR
  • 20+ minutes of vigorous-intensity activity for 3+ days/week

Examples of moderate exercise

  • Walking at 3-4.5 mph
  • Hiking
  • Water aerobics
  • Biking 5-9 mph
  • Yoga or Pilates
  • Stair climber or row machine with moderate effort
  • Weight training
  • Ballroom or line dancing or ballet
  • Doubles tennis
  • Playing Frisbee
  • Golf
  • Recreational swimming
  • Skateboarding or roller skating
  • Gardening and yard work

Examples of vigorous exercise

  • Jogging or running
  • Mountain climbing or rock climbing
  • Step aerobics
  • Jumping rope
  • Stair climber or row machine at fast pace
  • Circuit weight training
  • Boxing
  • Competitive sports games (football, basketball, soccer, etc)
  • Swimming steady laps
  • Kayaking white water rapids
  • Heavy shoveling, trimming trees, log-splitting
  • Beach volleyball
  • Line or ballroom dancing energetically


Should You Exercise During & After Cancer Treatment?

women exercising with soft light medicine balls

Contrary to many assumptions, exercise is both safe and suggested during breast cancer treatment, as well as in the recovery stage. It can reduce fatigue, enhance physical functions and quality of life, and improve post-treatment effects on bone health and muscle strength, according to CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

Adjustments to pre-existing workout programs may need to be made during treatment, and anyone starting exercise for the first time should start slowly, but ideally, activity should be maintained as much as possible. Again, limitations should be discussed with your physician prior to changing or starting a workout program.

The benefits of exercise during breast cancer treatment include

  • Faster recovery from treatment
  • Lower risk of recurring cancer
  • Improved survival rates
  • Better mood, stamina, and overall sense of wellness

Exercise Recommendations During Cancer Treatment

  • Exercise at least 150 minutes/week
  • Strength train 2+ days/week OR
  • Vigorous aerobic exercise for 75 minutes/week

The same types of exercises as listed above in prevention can be used during breast cancer treatment. Most important is for you to find someone that you enjoy and will stick with. Find a local class you love, start working out with a friend to make it more fun, or mix it up with activities like weight lifting, yoga, and biking outside throughout the week.

*These are general guidelines and recommendations only. Please consult your physician before starting any exercise program prior to, during, or after breast cancer treatment. 

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