How to exercise with breast cancer: Breaking down the latest evidence
In a previous blog article about exercise and cancer (‘Four ways exercise helps with cancer treatment’), we established the many benefits of exercising throughout treatment.
In this article, we will answer the four most common questions surrounding exercising with breast cancer.
- What is the best type of exercise for people with breast cancer?
- What is the recommended ‘dose’ of exercise?
- Is there anything I should avoid or be wary of?
- Where can I find more information?
1. What is the best type of exercise for people with breast cancer?
Although all exercise is beneficial, the best type of exercise for people with breast cancer is a combination of aerobic exercise and resistance training.
Aerobic exercise includes activities such as walking around the block, pedalling on an exercise bike, water aerobics and boxing – in fact, anything that is sustained and gets your heart pumping.
Resistance training is where you move your arms or legs against resistance, whether that’s your own body weight, gravity, exercise bands or weights. Some exercise machines can also be used for resistance training. An example of this is lifting weights or light squatting.
Specific exercise such as pilates, yoga and tai chi can also be incorporated into your weekly activities and have been shown to improve flexibility, physical strength, posture, core strength and reduce fatigue.
2. What is the recommended ‘dose’ of exercise?
There is no standard approach to exercise for breast cancer patients, due mainly to the wide variety of situations such as varying ages, physical function and accompanying health issues.
However, studies generally suggest a 25-60 minute training program three times a week. Use this as a starting point, and speak to your physiotherapist to create a program that works well for you. You can start anywhere!
3. Is there anything I should avoid or be wary of?
In short, yes. There are rare occasions when a regular exercise regime may be harmful to your health. These are called ‘contraindications’ and include, but are not limited to:
- The immediate post-operative period (up to eight weeks)
- Recent arm or shoulder problems – for upper body exercises
- Extreme fatigue, anaemia (low level of red blood cells) or ataxia (lack of voluntary co-ordination)
- Pre-existing heart or lung problems that prevent you from safely completing an exercise program
- When using exercise bands, ensure you are using a light resistance. A strong band may be too strenuous for your arm.
Please check in with your GP or physiotherapist before beginning a program so you know you are in safe hands.
Pro tip: “Traditionally, upper limb exercises were avoided in breast cancer patients with lymph node dissection and radiotherapy. However, some recent studies show that these do not have a negative impact on lymphoedema.” (Eyigor & Kanyilmax, 2014)
4. Where can I find more information?
Read the research paper this article is based on – Exercise in patients coping with breast cancer: An overview (World Journal of Clinical Oncology, Sibel Eyigor and Selcen Kanyilmaz)
Check out this Exercise and Breast Cancer booklet from Breast Cancer Network Australia.
Article by Emily Johnson (Physiotherapist – Sydney)