Movement is Medicine

How breast cancer survivors can benefit from staying active.
Published August 31, 2016

Hitting your neighborhood walking path might be one of the last things you feel like doing, but it also might be one of the most important steps you can take to help stay cancer-free. Regular exercise is one of the American Cancer Society’s primary guidelines to help breast cancer survivors maintain long-term health (staying at a healthy weight and having a nutritious diet are the other two). Why is physical activity so important? “Exercise may be its own form of medicine,” says Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, managing director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society.

Regular physical activity has been shown to have many potential benefits, including lower stress, improved mood, and less fatigue, plus it helps facilitate weight maintenance—all of which may help improve a breast cancer survivor’s quality of life. 

A growing body of evidence shows that regular physical activity may help prevent the disease from coming back. A landmark Harvard study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association observed nearly 3,000 registered nurses and breast cancer survivors over 14 years and found that those who walked three to five hours a week reduced their risk of dying from breast cancer compared with those who walked less. The benefit was particularly apparent in women with hormone-responsive tumors.

The cause and effect isn’t clear, in part because the regular exercisers in the study also adopted other behaviors thought to possibly help prevent recurrence of many kinds of cancers, such as having a diet high in fruits and vegetables, keeping a healthy body-mass index (BMI), and staying on top of screenings. But Michelle Holmes, DrPH, associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health and lead researcher on the study, makes the case why exercise may help breast cancer survivors specifically: “Women who exercise may have lower levels of estrogen in their bodies, and many kinds of breast cancer are fueled by estrogen,” she says. The best news from this study? “The benefit is achievable. You don’t have to run a marathon.”

How much activity do you need?

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends you incorporate 150 minutes of moderate physical activity into your week. One idea might be to try a walking plan, aiming for a pace of one mile every 15 to 20 minutes. “Walking is safe for most and something most of us can do year-round,” says Doyle (although you should always get the OK from your health-care provider before beginning or changing exercise plans). If you haven’t been active at all, it’s fine to start slowly and ramp up both your speed and distance. If you can get to 30 minutes five times a week, you’ll hit the guidelines.

If you prefer to exercise at a high intensity, or if you’re more active in general, the ACS says that 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week works, too. That means activities that raise your heart rate and breathing, such as running, swimming, and cycling, or sports like tennis, basketball, or volleyball. Three 25-minute sessions per week will get the job done.

Tips for resistance training

Breast cancer survivors in particular may benefit from adding in some resistance training (aka strength training) to help restore the muscle mass that’s often lost during treatment, says Doyle. “Many women aren’t active during treatment, and during chemotherapy some might experience early menopause, which may result in the loss of some muscle mass,” adds Doyle. She explains that resistance training—making your muscles work against force such as your own body or weights—helps build muscle, which, in turn, burns energy and may help boost your metabolism and make you feel stronger. A health professional can help tailor an exercise program specific to your needs as a cancer survivor. In the meantime, here are some ideas from Doyle:

RELATED: Guide to strength training

Use your bodyweight

Bodyweight exercises offer a simple way to begin—you don’t need any equipment! Push-ups are a classic upper-body exercise that can be done on the floor in the usual way (from your toes) or modified, from your knees. If the floor doesn’t appeal, you can lean and brace your hands against a wall or the edge of a countertop and do them that way. For your lower body, squats and lunges are simple, work the larger muscles in your body like glutes and quads, and require little space. If you’re just starting out, feel free to use a table, chair, or wall for extra balance.

Doyle recommends a twice-weekly routine that involves eight to 12 repetitions for the upper-body exercises and 15 to 20 reps for the lower body. Increase your sets and reps gradually, week by week, as you get stronger.

RELATED: 30-Day push-up challenge

Try some gear

There are many equipment options for an effective resistance workout. Dumbbells are perhaps the most common, says Doyle, and come in a variety of weights (some starting as low as 2 pounds). Resistance bands are made of rubber and can be mounted to wall anchors, posts, and playground equipment. They’re available in a range of resistance levels and are a great way to start. Beyond these tools and toys, most gyms will have an array of weight machines, kettlebells, medicine balls, and free weights. And items like Swiss balls and BOSU balls can be used to make strength training more challenging. Doyle recommends consulting with a personal trainer or joining a gym with trainers on staff to help guide you while you’re starting out.

RELATED: Why dumbbells should be your favorite fitness friends

Time to get moving!

Of all the potential benefits of physical activity, the one that Doyle suggests you should never underestimate is how good regular movement with a purpose could make you feel. “When you were going through treatment, there were so many things in your life that you couldn’t control,” she says. “But having the opportunity to take back control of your life and positively affect your health may give you a huge mental boost. Deciding to live your life as a physically active person can help change the way you see yourself. You could get reacquainted with your body and start to feel like yourself again.”


Consult with your physician before beginning any exercise regimen. This article was reviewed for accuracy in September 2021 by Christi Smith, MS, CSCS, associate manager for science translation at WW. The WW Science Team is a dedicated group of experts who ensure all our solutions are rooted in the best possible research.

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