For the past four years, we’ve been honored to partner with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) to recognize Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October.
Surviving cancer — and harsh cancer treatments — is an incredible feat on its own, and you’ve probably made it a point to prevent cancer from ever returning. One such way is by incorporating regular exercise into your routine. In fact, research has shown that exercise, in addition to its benefits for everything from heart health to stress alleviation, sleep, cognitive performance and more, can actually reduce the risk of some cancers, including breast, colon, lung and uterine. Furthermore, its effects can have a big impact not only for cancer survivors, but those who are about to — or currently undergoing — treatment.
When you have cancer or are going through chemotherapy, you may have much less energy to spare for unnecessary physical activity. In this guide, we’ll offer some exercise tips for cancer patients that are gentle and sustainable to practice consistently, without stressing your system or wearing you out.
1. Go for a Brisk Walk
It’s no secret that walking is a wonderful low-impact exercise that can offer critical health benefits for all ages and fitness levels, with few drawbacks. (Plus, it’s free and can be done pretty much anywhere — all you need is a sturdy pair of shoes.) In fact, studies have shown that walking just 30 minutes a day, five days a week, can reduce your risk of coronary heart disease by 19 percent, in addition to activating and strengthening muscles throughout your entire body. When it comes to cancer, research indicates that walking can have significant benefits for breast cancer patients. A study of 73,000 postmenopausal women found that strolling at a moderate pace for an hour a day was associated with a 14 percent reduced breast cancer risk, and an hour daily of strenuous exercise had a 25 percent reduced risk.
|Pro Tip: Doing something is always better than doing nothing. Even if you don’t have an hour in your day, try to squeeze in at least 20 minutes. The American Cancer Society, in fact, recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity) each week.
2. Find an Activity You Actually Enjoy
There’s no gimmick to this trick, but finding an activity you genuinely enjoy doing will increase the odds that you actually stick with your exercise routine. If you’re not a fan of rote movements at the gym, or easily bored by workout sessions that are too long, try one of the following:
- HIIT (high-intensity interval training)
- Brisk walking
- Dancing (Zumba)
- Climbing stairs
- Sports (tennis, badminton, softball)
- Lifting weights
- Resistance bands
- Bodyweight exercises and calisthenics (squatting, push-ups, etc.)
- Yoga, tai chi, stretching
The best exercise routines tend to rotate between activities to keep your days dynamic and give your body a mixture of endurance and strength training as well as stretches. For other ways to stay motivated, experiment with the time of day you work out (maybe you feel best as an evening jogger or a midday weight lifter) as well as the music you listen to.
Breast cancer statistics in the U.S. (courtesy of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation):
3. Use Tricks to Motivate Yourself
Even if you find a routine you love, you’ll invariably run into days when exercise is the last thing you want to do. If it’s rest-related (i.e., you’re sore or feeling feeble and know that pushing your body will only strain yourself), don’t force a workout. But if it’s a matter of willpower, it may help to try a few techniques to reduce the number of obstacles and excuses in your path. Here are a few handy tricks:
- Find an accountability partner (make sure they’re reliable)
- Sleep in your gear (if you’re an early riser and morning fitness lover)
- Track your progress (you can use an app or write down your goals, times, reps and other details in a spreadsheet)
- Pack a “just in case” bag in your car (shoes and a change of clothes in a duffel give you one fewer excuse)
- Break your workout into smaller chunks (instead of walking for an hour straight, take three 20-minute walks throughout the day)
- Incorporate media — even TV (listen to a podcast, watch your favorite show on the treadmill or even follow along to a YouTube fitness video)
- Reward yourself for showing up (plan a staycation, upgrade your workout gear, get a new journal, give yourself a pedicure or enjoy a massage once you’ve hit your goals)
- Keep benefits top of mind (write down the exercise stats below and keep them handy)
Breast cancer and exercise statistics (courtesy of the National Cancer Institute):
4. Refuel With Foods That Fight Cancer
Healthy eating is just as important as regular exercise and getting enough sleep for cancer patients and survivors. Making sure you’re consuming enough carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats as well as meeting daily vitamin and mineral requirements can keep your energy levels high and fuel your body with the nutrients it needs to support a robust immune system and keep cancer cell growth at bay. According to Healthline, here are 10 foods that may lower the risk of breast cancer:
- Leafy green vegetables (kale, arugula, mustard greens and chard, which are rich in carotenoid antioxidants)
- Citrus fruits (which contain folate, vitamin C, antioxidants and carotenoids that have anti-inflammatory properties)
- Fatty fish (salmon, sardines and mackerel with healthy omega-3s and antioxidants)
- Berries, especially blueberries (which have flavonoids and anthocyanins to protect against cellular damage)
- Fermented foods (yogurt, kimchi, miso and sauerkraut, which have probiotics)
- Alliums (garlic, onions and leeks, which have organosulfur compounds, flavonoid antioxidants and vitamin C)
- Peaches, apples and pears (these fruits specifically have been shown to reduce breast cancer risk)
- Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, which contain anticancer glucosinolate compounds)
- Beans (high fiber content can help reduce breast cancer risk)
- Herbs and spices (parsley, rosemary, oregano, thyme, turmeric, curry and ginger for their potent plant compounds and antioxidants)
If you can, cut back on alcohol, processed foods, added sugar and refined carbs — all of which may increase breast cancer risk.
5. Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is your body’s nightly detox. Even though it’s a “passive” act, your body is actually kicking off an array of complex processes that help you function during the day. It’s so crucial that slight sleep deprivation can have big impacts on your mood, judgment and memory. When it comes to breast cancer, sleep can play an even bigger role. Researchers have found that getting too little sleep (fewer than six hours a night) and too much sleep (nine hours or more) can actually increase the risk of breast cancer recurrence among women who were already diagnosed and/or treated. To keep your sleep consistent, try setting up a firm sleep and rise time, and make sure you turn off your devices an hour before bed, avoid caffeine late in the day and other activities that may keep you up at night.
6. Take Your Rest Days Seriously
Rest days are crucial for your body to recover from the microtears and strains that even gentle or moderate exercise can induce. For cancer patients, rest days are even more important, since you don’t want to keep your body in a constant state of stress (exercise, after all, is stress on the body, even if you don’t feel it). That said, your rest days don’t have to be couch-bound or completely inactive. Gentle movement, such as moderate walking, or activities such as yoga, tai chi, foam rolling, stretching and even self-massage are great ways to keep your heart rate up while letting your body recover. These exercises can also help regulate your mood, sleep schedule, appetite and other facets of your daily routine.
7. Take Advantage of Day-to-Day Movements
If you’re crunched for time, don’t fret — there are plenty of ways to get basic endurance and strength training into your day with movements you’re already going to perform. If possible, take the bus or walk to your local coffee shop or grocery store, and take the long route to squeeze in some extra steps. When you get home, do a few repetitions of bicep curls with your grocery bags (if they’re sturdy enough!) or hold a bag in your arms (close to your chest) and perform a set of squats. You can also try biking instead of driving, parking farther away from your destination and walking the rest of the way and eating lunch away from your desk at work.
Breast cancer learning center (courtesy of the National Breast Cancer Foundation):