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Exercise and staying fit

I believe that exercise is a great preventive drug, and everybody needs to take that medicine every day. Exercise strengthens the entire body from your bones, muscles to your mind. The most important thing you can do for your health is lead an active life. – Natalie

Getting regular exercise during and following your breast cancer treatment can have many benefits. It can improve your physical and emotional wellbeing, including your mood, sleep, and bone health. Exercise can also help you to manage some of the physical side effects of your treatment, such as fatigue, pain and lymphoedema.

When can I start exercising?

We recommend that you discuss starting exercise with your doctor and gain medical clearance. Generally, people can start exercising during or after treatment, however you may need to make some modifications and take precautions. You might need consider issues like compromised immunity or lymphoedema when talking to your health professional about an exercise program. The frequency and intensity of the exercises should be based on your current health and fitness.

How much exercise should I do?

The guidelines are the same for people with or without breast cancer. These guidelines are to be active on most, preferably all, days every week. Each week you should aim for 150 to 300 minutes (2½ to 5 hours) of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes (1¼ to 2½ hours) of vigorous intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both. It is also recommended to do muscle strengthening (resistance) activities on at least 2 days per week. ‘Moderate intensity exercise’ makes breathing a bit harder, but not completely out of breath.

If you currently do no physical activity, start slowly and gradually build up to the recommended amount. You should try to reduce prolonged inactivity - break up long periods of sitting as often as possible.

More details are available on the Department of Health's Make your Move brochure.

What sorts of exercise are suitable?

It doesn’t really matter what exercise you do, the important thing is that you do something you enjoy. This will help you to stay motivated. Activities you can try include:

  • dragon boating
  • gym classes, such as aerobics or step classes
  • swimming or water aerobics
  • walking or jogging
  • yoga or pilates.

What about incidental exercise?

Incidental exercise refers to the exercise you get from regular daily activities such as housework, gardening and walking the dog. It can contribute to your weekly exercise total if it is done at moderate intensity.

Who should I see for help?

Seek professional advice from an accredited exercise physiologist or a physiotherapist, who are trained to design individual exercise programs. You may be eligible for a GP Care Plan or for rebates through your health insurance to help pay for these services.

Accredited exercise physiologists (AEPs) are accredited health professionals who specialise in exercise programs to prevent and manage chronic diseases and injuries, including conditions such as breast cancer. You can seek an AEP through a private clinics or your hospital to help with recovery after treatment. Search for an AEP in your area

Physiotherapists use advanced techniques and evidence-based care to assess, diagnose, treat and prevent a wide range of health conditions and movement disorders. Physiotherapy helps repair damage, reduce stiffness and pain, and increase mobility. They can address a range of needs, including treating, managing or preventing fatigue, pain, muscle and joint stiffness, and deconditioning. Find a physiotherapist in your area

Should I be concerned about lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema, or swelling of the arm, hand or breast, sometimes develops in women whose lymph nodes were removed or damaged during breast cancer treatment. Research has shown that regular exercise can help reduce your risk of developing lymphoedema. It can also help you to manage lymphoedema symptoms if you already have it.

You can find more information about how to reduce your risk of lymphoedema on our lymphoedema page.

Aqua aerobics has really helped the lymphoedema in my arm. The water acts like a gentle massage. – Ann

Tips to stay motivated

  • Exercise with a friend or family member.
  • Tell your friends and family that you want to exercise regularly and ask them to encourage you.
  • Alternate the type of exercise you do to help to keep things interesting.
  • Listen to music or a podcast while exercising to keep your mind occupied.
  • Include some exercise in your daily schedule -if it’s in your schedule you are more likely to do it.
  • Keep track of the exercise you complete in a diary.

BCNA’s Breast cancer and exercise booklet

BCNA’s Breast Cancer and Exercise booklet is designed to help women diagnosed with breast cancer to exercise regularly. It provides useful information on the benefits of exercise, practical tips to help you stay motivated, and an exercise diary to keep track of your achievements.

More information

  • If you are looking to get fit in a unique way with other people affected by breast cancer, try dragonboating with Dragons Abreast. Dragons Abreast is an organisation for people affected by breast cancer; spreading awareness, empowering individuals, and educating on the benefits of an active lifestyle after diagnosis. For more information, visit the Dragons Abreast website.

  • YWCA encore is a free 8-week program for women who have experienced breast cancer. To find out more and to sign up, visit the YWCA Encore website.