Image Source: / Stuart Miles

The Benefits of Exercise for Breast Cancer

Exercising when you have breast cancer is one of the best things you can do for yourself.  In fact, it was one of the few things that my oncologist and I could agree upon!

After I was finished with all of my treatments, I took part in an Australian study on the benefits of exercise after breast cancer.  I joined a gym and  attended at least three days per week – even though there were many days when I really was not in the mood to go, I went anyway.  I did this for eight weeks, and at the conclusion of the study I felt so much better, I just kept up with my gym membership and continued going.  I also did yoga and walking on the days when I wasn’t in the gym.

Exercising made sense to me, for several reasons:

  1. Research shows that excess fat on your body puts you at a higher risk for breast cancer (and I didn’t want it back!)
  2. It helps your body detox after all the treatments
  3. Exercise brings fresh oxygen into your body and I was aware that cancer HATES oxygen, it thrives in anaerobic conditions
  4. It increases muscle strength and bone density and reduces risk of injury
  5. It lowers blood pressure
  6. All those feel-good endorphins that exercise releases help psychological health
  7. It prolongs life by fortifying your immune system, helping you control weight and providing you with energy and stamina

Research Shows Exercise Helps With Radiotherapy, Depression, Anxiety

In 1997, a group of researchers in the UK followed 46 women beginning a six-week program of radiation therapy for early stage breast cancer.  The exercise group scored significantly higher than the group that didn’t exercise on physical functioning and symptom intensity, particularly fatigue, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping. [1]

Another research study done in the UK in 1998 followed 24 breast cancer survivors (mean time following surgery 41.8 months; ranging from 1 to 99 months) with an average age of 48.9 years.  They were followed for 10 weeks and asked to do aerobic exercise 4 days per week, 30-40 minutes/session.  The study revealed that women who exercised had significantly less depression and anxiety compared to those who did not exercise. [2]

2017 Update:  Yoga and other mind-body interventions can play a large part of the healing process as well. A 2017 review of 18 research studies looked at how yoga and other mind-body interventions such as qi gong, tai chi and meditation impacted health. The researchers found mind-body interventions change the expression of genes associated with chronic inflammation (and we all know that cancer is an inflammatory process), as well as having many other wide-ranging health benefits. [3]

What Sort of Exercise Is Best?

This is a hotly debated topic.  Some think that you need to get out there and sweat and work your butt off for exercise to be therapeutic but that simply isn’t the case.  A good 45-minute yoga session can be just as effective on body and mind as going for a run.

Some outgoing women love to dance and will join dance classes.  Some prefer gentle stretching and the mind/body connection that yoga provides, while others would much rather go for a solo walk in the woods with their dog.  My best advice is to do what you love because you are more apt to do it more frequently if you love it.

Hate to Exercise?

If you don’t love exercise, here are some ideas for you:

  • Get a stationary bicycle and read while you’re on it – or watch your favorite TV show
  • Walk or run to the grocery store to buy one or two items
  • Try Zumba, it’s a blast
  • Water aerobics can be fun
  • Buy a yoga or dance or aerobics DVD by somebody who’s nice to look at!
  • Try belly dancing or tennis or roller blading
  • Get a workout buddy and make a pact to keep exercising even when you don’t feel like it – research shows that if someone else’s workout depends on yours, you will be more likely to exercise, so as not to disappoint or let down the other person
  • Get an iPod and choose music you love to exercise to and put that on a playlist – music can be a great distraction
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator or park your car at the far end of the parking lot
  • If your kids have a PlayStation or Wii, there are dancing games and fitness programs you might enjoy
  • Gardening is good exercise
  • Hiking is rewarding and great exercise
  • Play Frisbee with your kids or grandkids (or your dog!)

We have to stop thinking about exercise as a nuisance. Our bodies were designed to move!  Once you find the thing that you love to do, it becomes a joy and you really notice the difference on the days you don’t exercise.  So get out there and move!


[1] Effects of exercise on fatigue, physical functioning, and emotional distress during radiation therapy for breast cancer —;jsessionid=tUx3m0KS51NQDcfbZZjz.0

[2] The effect of aerobic exercise on self-esteem and depressive and anxiety symptoms among breast cancer survivors –

[3] What Is the Molecular Signature of Mind–Body Interventions? A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practices –

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