Research suggests that moderate exercise can help reduce the risk of death and improve quality of life in people with breast cancer. A doctor or a physical therapist can explain to a person how treatments may affect their ability to exercise and help them set attainable and safe goals.

The American Cancer Society notes that breast cancer is the second most common cancer among females in the United States, who have a 13% risk of developing the disease in their lifetime. Breast cancer can also affect males in rare cases.

A doctor may prescribe a combination of treatments, including surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or other medications, to treat breast cancer. Getting regular exercise may also help improve survival and quality of life in people with breast cancer.

Read on to learn more about the potential benefits of exercise and how people can get moving safely after they receive a breast cancer diagnosis.

Research has found that regular exercise offers many potential benefits for people with breast cancer.

Increased survival

Studies suggest that physical activity may help people with breast cancer live longer. It may reduce the risk of death from breast cancer and other causes.

A 2019 analysis reviewed the results of 24 studies on physical activity and the risk of death in people with breast cancer. It found that over a follow-up period of 2.9­ to 12.7 years, people with breast cancer who got 300–500 minutes (about 5–8 hours) of exercise per week were 28% less likely to die from cancer than those who got less than 300 minutes per week. They were also 26% less likely to die from any cause.

The same review found that people with breast cancer who got more than 500 minutes of exercise per week were 29% less likely to die from breast cancer than people who got less than 300 minutes per week. They were also 39% less likely to die from any cause.

A 2020 study found that moderate levels of physical activity appeared to reduce mortality in people with breast cancer. The study used the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) guidelines for moderate physical activity. These state that a person should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, per week. That works out to be about 30 minutes of exercise a day on 5 days of the week.

Reduced risk of recurrence

Some evidence suggests that regular exercise may reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence. A recurrence is when cancer comes back following treatment.

A 2021 study found that the risk of recurrence was 63% lower in breast cancer survivors who exercised on 2–5 days of the week compared with inactive participants. People only needed to exercise for 1 hour per week to see significant benefits.

Improved mood and energy

According to experts, the existing research suggests that moderate-to-vigorous intensity aerobic exercise or a combination of aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise may help reduce anxiety and depression during and after cancer treatments.

Exercise may also help reduce cancer-related fatigue. Fatigue is a common side effect of certain breast cancer treatments, including radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Improved treatment tolerance

Although more research is necessary, it is possible that regular exercise might help people tolerate the side effects of certain cancer treatments.

A 2019 review paper looked at eight past studies on exercise and chemotherapy in people with breast cancer. Two of the studies found that women with breast cancer were more likely to complete chemotherapy treatments if they exercised regularly. Six of the studies found no difference between physically active and inactive people.

Improved physical function

Exercise may help people maintain and regain physical function during and after cancer treatments.

Breast cancer treatments such as surgery and radiation therapy damage tissues in the chest wall and armpit. This damage can negatively affect a person’s range of motion, as well as their strength and endurance.

To promote recovery after surgery, doctors typically advise people to limit their physical activity for a couple of weeks. However, remaining inactive for too long can cause fitness to decline.

A 2019 review of studies found that early rehabilitation with range-of-motion exercises had benefits for shoulder and arm function after breast cancer surgery.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans encourage adults to get at least 150–300 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise or 75–150 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic exercise per week. Examples of aerobic exercise include:

  • walking
  • hiking
  • running
  • cycling
  • swimming
  • jumping rope
  • dancing

The guidelines also advise adults to do muscle-strengthening activities at least two times a week. Examples include:

  • weightlifting
  • resistance band exercises
  • calisthenics, which are exercises that use body weight to provide resistance

Some people with breast cancer may be able to meet or exceed these targets without risking overuse injuries or excess fatigue. Meeting or exceeding these targets may help extend their survival and improve their quality of life during and after cancer treatments.

Other people with breast cancer may need to start with smaller targets. They may be able to build their range of motion, strength, and endurance gradually over time.

“Take the time to progress safely so that you don’t get an injury and a setback,” Mallory Mark, DPT, advised Medical News Today. Mark is a physical therapist at TurningPoint Breast Cancer Rehabilitation in Atlanta.

A person’s doctor or physical therapist can help them set an exercise routine and specific goals that are safe and sustainable for them.

Mark offers the following guidance to help people meet their exercise goals.

Talk with your care team about long-term effects

Some of the effects of breast cancer and cancer treatments take longer than others to develop.

For example, radiation therapy may cause stiffness to develop weeks or months after the last treatment session. This can limit a person’s range of motion and their ability to exercise comfortably.

“It can be scary and really frustrating because you’re like: ‘Wait, I’ve been done with radiation for 6 months. What’s going on? Nobody ever told me about this,’” Mark said.

A doctor or other members of a person’s cancer care team can explain the potential short- and long-term side effects of treatment. A physical therapist can then help a person manage many of the side effects of treatment if they do occur.

Ask for a referral to a physical therapist

If a person’s cancer care team does not already include a physical therapist, Mark encourages them to ask for a referral.

“I would say for every patient or survivor out there, advocate for that service. Whether you end up needing physical therapy for 6 months or as little as two visits, there is so much that can be done,” she said.

A physical therapist can help people understand and manage the physical effects of breast cancer and cancer treatments. They can help people set safe exercise goals and learn how to rehabilitate following surgery or other treatments.

“We can give them a bit of guidance as to what to expect,” Mark told MNT. “Even if it’s just a session or two to understand — this is what you should be focused on, these are some things that you should be watching out for, and this is something that you can do long term.”

Start small

People who find it hard to exercise for long periods can break their workouts into shorter sessions, advised Mark. They may also need to reduce the intensity of their workouts until their strength and endurance improve.

“It doesn’t have to be 45 minutes of high intensity interval training,” she said. “It can be something as simple as two 10-minute bouts of walking, totaling 20 minutes in a day.”

Focus on range of motion

When a person’s range of motion becomes limited, it may be hard for them to complete many common exercises. Improving their range of motion may increase their ability to do other activities.

“We really work on regaining full range of motion first. And once that’s restored, then you’re starting to work on some strengthening,” Mark told MNT.

Exercise while you are out and about

Mark encourages people to carve out time for physical activity when they are already out and about. For example, a person could stop by a park on the way home from work or walk an extra loop around the grocery store parking lot.

“Get it done while you’re already out because as soon as you go home, that fatigue will sit in, and you won’t want to do it anymore,” she said. “If you get it done, then you don’t have to think about it, and it doesn’t fall by the wayside and the bottom of your to-do list.”

A person should always talk with a doctor before starting any new exercise program. Although regular exercise is generally safe and beneficial for people with breast cancer, some cancer treatments can affect a person’s lungs and cardiovascular system. The cancer itself may also affect different parts of the body.

As a result, people with breast cancer may get tired or out of breath more quickly than usual when exercising.

“Be really mindful of your response to exercise, [such as] whether you’re excessively short of breath or fatiguing a bit easier,” suggested Mark. “Make sure you’re starting with something that isn’t fatiguing you so much that it knocks you out for a week.”

Exercising regularly has multiple benefits for physical and mental health, including for people with breast cancer.

Some research suggests that even minimal physical activity can help improve breast cancer survival. Exercise may also help improve mood, reduce fatigue, and support physical function.

A doctor or physical therapist can help a person learn more about the potential benefits and risks of different forms of exercise. They can also help them set safe exercise goals and routines.