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Exercising After Breast Cancer: Moving Toward Health

No matter what type of treatment you have for breast cancer, it can take a toll on both your body and emotions. The effects of the disease and treatment often cause women to become less active, more stressed, and unable to sleep well. And the worse you feel, the more inactive you tend to become. As a result, after treatment you may find that you lack the strength and stamina to continue or resume the roles and activities you carried out before your cancer diagnosis.

What can you do to gain strength and feel healthier and more like yourself again? Many women find that regular exercise can improve their fitness level as well as their mental outlook.

In addition, women who undertake an exercise program can help speed their recovery from cancer. Research has shown that while breast cancer can make women feel as though their body has failed them, exercise can help them regain some control over their body and their life.

Benefits and precautions

Exercise offers many benefits to breast cancer survivors as well as to women who are undergoing treatment. Exercise can help by doing these things:

  • Increase your fitness, which can help you return to your daily activities more quickly

  • Provide a sense of well-being, self-esteem, and positive mood

  • Improve your ability to sleep

  • Reduce the side effects from treatment, such as fatigue

Before starting an exercise program, get a checkup from your doctor. Those who have finished treatment and have no underlying health issues or major side effects from treatment usually can follow an exercise program of their choice.

Women who are having treatment for breast cancer, however, should consult with an exercise expert and check with their doctor before proceeding. This is because many cancer therapies can weaken the body — in some cases, they can even affect the heart. If this is the case for you, you may need to follow a modified exercise routine that takes your physical condition and type of treatment into account.

Many cancer centers have health care professionals in their departments of physical therapy or physical medicine and rehabilitation who work with people with cancer. They can discuss options with people with cancer and design a safe program for them to follow. If you're in treatment and interested in exercising, ask your doctor or health plan to refer you to one of these experts.

Getting started

Starting to exercise gradually is a good idea, especially for anyone who was not in shape before her diagnosis. People who try to exercise almost every day — even if only for 5 to 10 minutes — may find that a small amount of exercise helps them get in the habit of working out in some fashion. Working up to exercising 30 minutes a day is a good goal because that length of time provides benefits for everyone. Research has shown that benefits can be seen even with lesser amounts of regular exercise, especially for women who were formerly sedentary.

Walking, bicycling, or aquatic exercises are good aerobic options. Walking is a natural and easy choice as it can be done anywhere at almost any time. Finding an exercise that you like is the key to sticking with it.

Women should also consider strength training. Lifting weights can help keep bones and muscles strong, especially after menopause. Some have expressed concerns that this type of exercise might worsen certain conditions linked with breast cancer, such as lymphedema. (This is a side effect that involves swelling in the arm from buildup of lymph fluid on the side of the breast cancer.) But a recent study in women with this condition showed that strength training did not make lymphedema worse. Still, it is always a good idea to check with your health care provider before starting any exercise program.

Joining an exercise program at a fitness club is a good option for many people. Many fitness clubs around the country, such as the YWCA, now offer special programs for cancer survivors. Local chapters of the American Cancer Society may have information on exercise programs for women with breast cancer.

Sticking with it

Perhaps the toughest part of an exercise program is sticking with it. Healthy people often drop out of exercise programs, especially within the first 3 to 6 months of starting one.

One way to keep motivation up is to join an exercise group at a local fitness center. The social aspect can provide an added attraction to working out. And fitness centers also offer personal trainers, who can help people stay motivated. Working out with a friend is another good idea, particularly when working out at home. Some studies have shown that walking at home in the neighborhood turns out to more useful in the long run than working out at a fitness center, mainly because it is easier to stay near home than to travel to exercise.

People with cancer who are having treatment tend to stick with exercise at high rates. This may be because a cancer diagnosis is a wake-up call to not take your health for granted. Exercising and getting into good physical shape is an excellent way of taking charge of your overall health. Not only can it help you get through cancer treatment, but it can also sustain you throughout the rest of your life.