Tips for Exercising When You Have Breast Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on March 17, 2023
3 min read

Imagine there’s a pill that could make you feel better mentally and physically. It also offsets the side effects of breast cancer treatment, makes it less likely that your cancer will return, and may help you live longer and feel better.

Would you take it?

Exercise offers all the same benefits. When you have breast cancer, it may be the last thing on your mind. And you may not feel up to doing that much -- no judgment about that. But being active can still be a powerful way to feel better. It can help you:

  • Reconnect with your body. It’s common for breast cancer to affect how you feel about, and in, your body. Exercise helps you take charge and feel in control of your body again.
  • Lower your recurrence risk. Being active on a regular basis makes breast cancer less likely to come back. It also helps prevent other cancers, like those of the colon and lung.
  • Maintain your weight. Being overweight or obese is linked to a greater chance of breast cancer coming back. Exercise helps you build muscle and keep your weight in normal range.
  • Boost energy. You have to spend a little energy to feel energized. Fatigue is one of the most common side effects of breast cancer treatment. People who exercise during cancer treatment still get tired, but less so, by up to half.
  • Natural antidepressant. Exercise boosts levels of brain chemicals including serotonin endorphins. Together they lift and help manage your mood.
  • More mobility. Breast cancer treatments such as radiation and surgery can cause pain and tightness in your arm and shoulder. Gentle stretches, or moving your arms back and forth as you walk, will loosen and strengthen those areas.

Maybe you’ve always been active and will have to cut back during treatment. Or have always hated exercise or don’t do it at all. Be compassionate with yourself and consider what’s realistic for you today. It’s about doing what you can, when you can, to feel as good as you can during one of the most demanding seasons of life you may ever go through.

In general, exercise is safe before, during, and after treatment. But before you get started, ask your doctor what’s best for your age, stage, physical health, and treatment. Some types of activities may be a better fit than others.

There are also occupational and physical therapists who specialize in breast cancer. Ask your doctor for a referral.

Most importantly, listen to your body. You’re the only one who truly understands how you feel. Some days exercise may sound good. Some days it won’t. Both are OK.

Whether you’re new to exercise or had a routine before your diagnosis, start slow. It’s better to work your way up than do too much too soon and get hurt or discouraged.

The goal is 30 minutes a day, five days a week, of moderate activity (like a brisk walk). Do more if you’re up to it, less if you’re not. You can also break it up into three 10-minute sessions a day. Consistency is key.

If you can, cover these three categories:

  • Stretches to warm your body up, cool it down, and help prevent injury. When stretching before exercise, keep it moving. Save the stretches where you hold a pose for after you’re done. Never stretch too far -- it shouldn’t hurt.
  • Aerobic movement that gets your heart going, like walking briskly, jogging, swimming, or riding a bicycle.
  • Strength work for your muscles. You can use weights, resistance bands, or your own body weight.

Any movement is good. Gardening and cleaning the house count, as do other low-impact forms of exercise like yoga and tai chi. The more you move throughout your day, the better.

If it motivates you, get outside. If it doesn’t, try exercise videos. Find an exercise buddy or invest in a device or app that tracks your work.