Physical activity and breast cancer

preparing for exercise

Physical activity has many benefits for people with breast cancer, from reducing fatigue to helping you regain a sense of control.

In this section, you’ll find information about how much activity is recommended and what sorts of activities you could try. There are also tips for if you’re new to physical activity.

While everyone is recommended to do a certain amount of activity each week, some treatments for breast cancer can make you feel very tired or ill. If this is the case, don’t worry about trying to do the recommended amount. Even a small amount of activity will have benefits. Read more tips about physical activity during and after treatment.

Why be physically active?

Regular physical activity can help maintain or improve your health during and after treatment, and can: 

  • help avoid or reduce some side effects of cancer treatment – such as fatigue, weight gain, osteoporosis and lymphoedema
  • improve your long-term health, reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes, and may reduce the risk of the cancer coming back 
  • help your mental wellbeing by reducing anxiety, stress, depression and improving your overall mood
  • prevent or reduce the loss of muscle tone and aerobic fitness that can happen during treatment.

As well as being active, it’s also important to eat a healthy diet

How much physical activity should I do? 

It’s recommended that adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity activity a week. Moderate-intensity activity should make your heart beat faster. You’ll feel warmer and breathe slightly harder, but you should still be able to hold a conversation. 

You can split this however you like. For example, you could do 30 minutes of activity on five days a week. If you want to do shorter periods of activity, you could do 10 minutes three times a day on each of these days. 

Any amount of activity is better than none; if you struggle to do 150 minutes, start by trying to reduce the time you spend sitting down or being inactive and gradually increase this over time.

If you have a medical condition that means you can’t do much physical activity, try to be as active as your condition allows. Even a small increase in exercise is associated with health benefits. If you’ve had breast reconstruction, check with your specialist team when you can start exercising and what type of activity would be appropriate for you. 

What type of activity should I do?

Examples of moderate-intensity activities are: 

  • brisk walking
  • cycling
  • hiking or hill walking
  • water aerobics or swimming
  • gardening or housework
  • dancing. 

A combination of different types of activity can be more interesting and will exercise different parts of your body. Physical activity can also be a social event, and there may be walking groups near you that you could join.

Tips if you’re new to exercise

If you’re new to exercise, build up your activity levels gradually. There are many ways to include physical activity in your daily routine. The following tips may help.

  • If you enjoy walking, try to increase the amount of time you walk for and the number of times you walk each day. You could also try increasing your pace as your energy returns. A pedometer (or a pedometer app for your phone) can help you monitor your progress.
  • Energetic housework can help increase your daily activity levels.
  • If you drive to work or the shops, park your car a little further away and walk the rest.
  • Get off the bus a stop earlier than you need to and walk.
  • Use the stairs instead of taking the lift.
  • Try to sit less and stand more, for example when talking on the phone.

Setting realistic goals and keeping a record of how much activity you do may help you stay motivated.

Muscle-strengthening activities 

As well as activities such as walking, aim to do muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week. Ask someone in your treatment team for advice on when you can begin doing muscle-strengthening activities.  

These activities can help strengthen your muscles after treatment, and include: 

  • sitting to standing
  • squats
  • press-ups against the wall
  • lifting light weights, such as tins of food or small bottles of water
  • gardening
  • activities that involve stepping and jumping such as dancing
  • using fitness equipment such as a static bike or cross trainer
  • yoga or pilates 

Shoulder and arm exercises after surgery 

If you’ve had surgery for breast cancer, our shoulder and arm exercises can help you regain the movement and function you had before surgery. If you have had breast reconstruction talk to your surgeon, physiotherapist or breast care nurse before you start any exercises, and follow their advice.

You can download a leaflet of the exercises.

Further information

Change4life is an NHS-run website with tips for eating well and being more active. You can search for local activities and fun things to do with the family.

» Find tips on keeping active after breast cancer in BECCA, our free app

Last reviewed: October 2015
Next planned review begins October 2017

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