The Effect of Exercise on Breast Cancer and How to Get Started on a Workout

Run-2Many are aware that including exercise in to your every day life can help to reduce the risks of chronic illnesses and can also help to manage chronic illness. So what are the benefits of exercise on breast cancer?


In Canada alone it is estimated that 25,700 women will have been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016; making up 26% of new cancer cases found in women. This means that 1/9 women are expected to develop breast cancer. 230 men in Canada are also expected to become diagnosed in 2016 (Breast Cancer Statistics, 2016).

Risk factors  

Some risk factors may include:

  • Genetic disposition
  • Personal history of breast cancer
  • Obesity
  • Physical inactivity
  • Prolonged use of hormone replacement therapy

(Risk Factors for Breast Cancer, 2016).


Past vs. Present

Prior to the 1980’s the standard for individuals with breast cancer was to rest and avoid exercise, specifically high intensity training (Jones & Alfano, 2013). It was believed that exercise would cause too much stress on patients with breast cancer that would hinder their recovery process. However in the late 1980’s research began to show that inactivity was causing adverse effects including decreased cardiovascular health, decreased functional capacity and increased nausea. Further studies began to show that if implemented correctly with exercise specificity per patient, high intensity aerobic activity can be safe and lead to improved aerobic capacity, body composition and decreased  symptomatic nausea (Jones & Alfano, 2013).

The shift has steadily moved in a positive direction towards increasing physical activity in breast cancer patients. Studies have shown that daily physical activity including aerobic and strength training has lead to improved quality of life, in both patients receiving initial therapy treatment as well as patients in remission (Jones & Alfano, 2013). It has also been discussed that 2 out of 3 types of breast cancer are hormone receptor positive. What this means is that in these cancers, higher levels of estrogen can help the cancer to spread and grow (Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer, 2016). Often estrogen blockers are prescribed to help decrease the spread of cancerous cells, however exercise often lowers estrogen levels; it has been considered a factor that directly benefits cancer survivors (Williamson, 2011).

The benefits of implementing aerobic, strength, functional and flexibility programming to breast cancer patients out weigh adverse effects.


The Goal of Exercise Programming

It is well know that exercise has many different benefits. Exercise can help reduce the risks in pre-cancer indivudals by helping to maintain a healthy body weight and lower the risks of chronic illnesses. However, exercise can provide many different benefits for individuals that are considered therapy patients, and also cancer survivors. The goal and type of exercise training for these individuals vary based on level of physical and psychological functionality (Williamson, 2011). A therapy patient requires exercise programming that is going to allow them to increase and maintain overall strength, endurance and overall daily functions. On the contrary, a cancer survivor someone that has gone in to remission will require programming that will allow for them to regain their former levels of physical and psychological function (Williamson, 2011).

That being said, physical health is not the only factor in managing breast cancer. The psychological stress can be increased in these individuals, which can cause emotional distress, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Furthermore, implementing an exercise program can help manage stress, improve mental well-being and allow for feelings of self-confidence and hope.

Exercise Programming

An exercise program for a patient with breast cancer should be specific to their needs and capabilities. It is important to ease in to a program, especially with individuals that suffer from severe fatigue, muscle weakness, cachexia (physical wasting) and problems with balance. Therefore, if neuropathy occurs, balance and coordination will need to be addressed, exercise activity may need to be altered (Williamson, 2011). Regular moderate physical activity can aid in managing illness induced side effects (pain, fatigue, nausea etc.), improved body weight, increase strength and repair muscle tissue, higher quality of life and improve psychological well-being amongst many other benefits.

Exercise Guidelines

This is an exercise guideline for individuals with breast cancer, it is best to increase intensity gradually and should be symptom limited. Do not go to exertion (Durstine, Moore, Painter, & Roberts, 2009).


Allow the body to prepare for exercise with a 5 to 10 minute warm-up. Get the whole body moving with to stimulate blood flow and prevent injuries and overdoing it. This may include stretching and dynamic movements, as well as walking.


Type: Activities that allow for large muscle groups to be used like walking, rowing, cycling, and water aerobics (for individuals not undergoing radiation therapy)

Frequency: Start with 3-4 days per week and increase up to 5 days/week

Duration: Beginners start between 15-30 minutes per session, gradually build up to 30-45 minutes

Intensity: Intensity should be somewhere between fairly light to moderate, do not go to exhaustion

Benefits: Improved lung capacity and heart health, control body weight, improve mood and quality of life, reduce fatigue and manage symptoms.


Type: Free weights, machines, bands, and body weight. Major muscle groups.

Frequency: 2-3 days per week

Duration: 20-30 minutes/session, start with 1 set per muscle group working between 8-10 reps, work up to 10-15 reps

Intensity: Some fatigue but not exertion.

Benefits: Increase strength, improved nervous system function, increase bone density and muscle tissue.

Flexibility and Functionality

Stretch all the major muscle groups used, stretch to the point of mild discomfort but no pain. Allow for 20-30 seconds per stretch. Do each stretch twice if necessary. Stretch after each exercise session.

Incorporate balance training activities daily, in order to improve every day functions.


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“Breast Cancer Statistics.” N.p., Web. 25 Oct. 2016
Durstine, J. L., Moore, G., Painter, P., & Roberts, S.O. (2009). ACSM’s Exercise Management for Persons With    Chronic Diseases and Disabilities, 3E. Human Kinetics.
“Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer.” N.p., 13 Sept. 2016. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.
Jones, L. W., & Alfano, C. M. (2013). Exercise-oncology research: past, present, and future. Acta Oncologica, 52(2),    195-215.
“Risk Factors for Breast Cancer.” N.p., Web. 25 Oct. 2016
Williamson, P. (2011). Exercise for special populations. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

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