Exercising during and after treatment for breast cancer can be difficult. If you have side effects such as fatigue or you feel sick, don’t worry about trying to do too much. Even doing a small amount of activity has benefits.

In this section, you’ll find information about physical activity during treatment, including chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone therapy. There’s also information about activity after treatment if you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis or lymphoedema.

For information about the benefits of physical activity for people with breast cancer, how much is recommended and what sorts of activities you could try, see our section on physical activity and breast cancer.

Before starting any type of activity, talk to your specialist team or GP (local doctor). It’s best to build up your activity gradually, particularly if exercise is new to you.

Physical activity during treatment

Physical activity and surgery 

After surgery for breast cancer, shoulder and arm exercises can help you regain the movement and function you had before surgery. You can download a leaflet of the exercises

If you’ve had any type of breast reconstruction, ask your surgeon, breast care nurse or a physiotherapist which exercises they recommend. 

The types of activities you can do may be limited for some time, depending on the type of reconstruction you’ve had. 

In the first few weeks after a reconstruction, you may be advised:

  • not to lift your arm above the height of your shoulder
  • not to lift or push with your arm on the side of your surgery
  • not to lift anything heavy. 

What type of physical activity to do and how much is a personal decision and it will depend on your fitness level before your surgery. Many people feel well enough to go for a short walk just a few days after surgery, but others may need longer to rest. Remember that you can build it up gradually and it may take time to return to the level of activity you were doing before your surgery.

Physical activity during chemotherapy

Side effects from chemotherapy vary from person to person. You may feel extremely tired during your treatment, and there may also be periods when you feel sick. This can be frustrating if you want to be physically active, but there will be times when you do feel able to do some type of activity. Gentle exercise, such as walking, can boost your energy and help make you feel less tired.

Your specialist team can advise you about which activities are suitable while you’re having chemotherapy treatment. 

Swimming and chemotherapy 

You may be advised to avoid swimming while having chemotherapy. If you do want to go swimming, discuss it with your hospital team first. This is because chemotherapy affects your immune system's ability to fight infection, which might make you more susceptible to any germs in the water. 

Physical activity during radiotherapy

If you’re having radiotherapy, any gentle exercise that feels comfortable, such as walking, gentle stretching, yoga and pilates, is suitable.

Due to the possible skin reactions that radiotherapy can cause, you may be advised to avoid swimming during the treatment as chemicals in the water could react with your skin.

If you do have a skin reaction after radiotherapy, it’s best to wait until it has settled down before you start swimming again.

Physical activity while taking hormone (endocrine) therapy

Hormonal treatments (for example anastrozole, letrozole, exemestane and tamoxifen) either reduce the amount of oestrogen in the body or block the effect of oestrogen on cells. This may increase the risk of developing osteoporosis.

You can help keep your bones strong and reduce the risk of osteoporosis by doing some:

  • weight-bearing exercises, such as walking, dancing and stair climbing
  • resistance training (working against the weight of another object), such as press-ups against the wall or lifting light weights.

Hormone therapies may cause pain and joint stiffness. This can often be helped by exercise and taking pain relief.

One of the side effects of hormone therapy can be hot flushes and regular, gentle exercise like walking or swimming may help reduce these.

Physical activity after treatment

After treatment you will usually be able to return to whatever physical activity you did before your diagnosis. The time it takes to get back to your previous level of activity may vary, so be realistic and gradually build up to it. If you want to try something different, or are worried about restarting your usual routine, talk to your specialist team.

You might find it helpful to read some of our Vita articles about being active after treatment:

The breast cancer dragon boat movement

Elaine and Sue’s Cuban trek challenge

I walked 50km while having treatment for breast cancer

I signed up to a triathlon after breast cancer

The following information is about exercising after treatment for breast cancer if you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis or lymphoedema.

Physical activity if you have osteoporosis

If you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis, avoid high-impact exercises such as jumping, running, jogging or skipping.

A special exercise programme may be recommended if you’re at high risk of fracture. Ask your specialist team for advice.

The National Osteoporosis Society suggests that swimming, gardening, walking, golf and Tai Chi can help keep you fit and reduce your risk of fracturing (breaking) a bone.

Physical activity and lymphoedema

Lymphoedema is a swelling caused by a build-up of lymph fluid in the surface tissues of the body, and can occur as a result of damage to the lymphatic system caused by either surgery or radiotherapy. The most common symptom is swelling in the arm, which can include the hand and fingers, but the breast or chest area can also be affected. It’s thought that exercise doesn’t cause or worsen lymphoedema and may even lessen symptoms.

The type of exercise that’s best for you depends on the severity and cause of your lymphoedema, and whether you have any other medical conditions, such as heart disease or arthritis. Your lymphoedema specialist or breast care nurse will talk about what might suit you according to the extent of your lymphoedema. 

When choosing your exercise, focus on aerobic exercises and those that help increase muscle strength.

There is ongoing research into types of exercise for people with lymphoedema. However, pilates, yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong and swimming can all be of benefit.

If you have been fitted with a compression garment you should wear it while exercising as it can help increase lymph and blood flow. You don’t need to wear the compression garment when swimming, because water will naturally put pressure on your arm. However, put the sleeve back on as soon as possible after. If you notice swelling in your arm during or after swimming, speak to your lymphoedema specialist about whether you should wear a compression garment while swimming.

You can contact the Lymphoedema Support Network for further information and support.

Last reviewed: October 2015
Next planned review begins 2017

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