Breast cancer: How exercise can help

Photo of a woman doing Nordic walking

Sports and exercise can have a number of positive effects both during and after treatment for breast cancer, such as improving fitness and quality of life.

For many people, exercise is an important part of getting healthy again after a major illness. It can also help to get over a disease like breast cancer and relieve side effects of treatment.

Cancer treatments – such as surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or radiation – can have both physical and emotional effects. There may be side effects of varying severity depending on the type of therapy and how intense it is. One common side effect is . Fatigue is debilitating physical and mental exhaustion. Most people in this situation will feel down from time to time.

What types of sports and exercise are most suitable?

There are four general types of exercise that can help to support the treatment of breast cancer:

  • Aerobic sports: These include jogging, brisk walking, bicycling and swimming. Aerobic sports can improve your condition and general performance. It also strengthens the heart and lungs, and can put you in a better mood.
  • Strength training: Cancer and its treatment can cause the loss of muscle mass. Muscle training can help you to regain it, and the exercises can strengthen bones and ligaments. These exercises include squats, chin-ups and push-ups, as well as the use of exercise equipment at the gym such as free weights or cable machines.
  • Coordination exercises: The goal here is to improve your balance and coordination. These things can be trained by standing one one leg or balancing and on an exercise ball, for instance.
  • Flexibility exercises: These are special exercises for relaxing your muscles and preventing poor posture, pain and muscle contracture (the shortening of muscles and tendons). This mostly includes gymnastic exercises to stretch various parts of your body.

You can ask your doctor about whether it’s possible to continue with specific sports you may have already been doing before you were diagnosed with breast cancer.

How can exercise help during and after treatment?

Regular exercise can help you to maintain or improve your physical fitness. An exercise program suited to your needs can reduce exhaustion and , as well as improve sleep. This can in turn improve your wellbeing and can often make it easier to cope with fears, worries and feeling down. Research suggests that yoga or aerobic sports and strength training can help.

Doing specific exercises with the help of a physical therapist can also help improve mobility and muscle strength after surgery, for example if you can’t move your arm properly.

There hasn’t been enough research on whether sports and exercise can lower the risk of cancer coming back.

How much exercise is needed for it to be effective?

A mix of fitness and strength training for 30-60 minutes at least three times a week can help reduce and improve wellbeing. In women who have had chemotherapy, it is more effective to do smaller amounts of exercise on three days a week rather than doing more intensive training. This lowers the risk of overdoing it. You can also make regular exercise a part of your routine, like taking walks or doing chores around the house or in the garden.

It is generally important to feel comfortable exercising, to adjust your exercise program to your needs and to rest after you exercise. A physical therapist can help with that, especially when you are just starting out. During phases of physical weakness – for example, after surgery or during chemotherapy – some exercises may no longer be possible or might not be suitable.

Can exercise have side effects?

Doing sports can, of course, generally cause injuries such as sprains. Starting arm exercises immediately after surgery may make it more difficult for wounds to heal. Too much exercise can be harmful during certain phases of the disease, for instance if someone has anemia or an . Studies show that special exercise programs supervised by trained specialists caused only a few injuries or other side effects.

Some women find it hard to exercise a lot, or they find it depressing if they don’t see any progress from specific exercises. Then it might be time to take a break from exercising for a while or to adjust the amount of exercise. It could be enough to just go on walks and do aerobics. They may feel like doing more exercise at a later time. It is important to only do things that feel right and not to overexert yourself.

Exercise and lymphedema

Lymphedema is a possible complication of breast cancer surgery. It is usually associated with swelling in the arm due to lymphatic fluid that builds up there. This can cause symptoms such as pain and tenderness. Women used to be advised to get plenty of rest after breast cancer surgery. It was thought that exercise increased the risk of lymphedema. Studies have now shown that this is not the case. Exercise may even have a positive effect on the lymphedema.

Where can I find suitable sports activities?

In Germany, special sports activities are offered as part of follow-up care after cancer treatment. If they are prescribed by a doctor, they are covered by statutory health insurers. Local cancer information centers and self-help organizations can provide information on what is on offer in your area. Special sports groups for cancer patients also offer various sports and leisure activities for people who have had cancer treatment. Combining sports activities with social events can offer both physical and emotional support.

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IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Updated on April 21, 2022

Next planned update: 2025


Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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