Flexibility Exercise

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Flexibility exercises, also called range-of-motion exercises or plain old stretching, keep your muscles elastic and your joints moving freely. Flexibility exercises should feel like “comfortable tension.” You feel only stretching, never pain. See the chart below for some examples of flexibility exercises.

Benefits: Good flexibility can help you do just about any movement more comfortably, from walking to sitting to bending over to pick up something you dropped. Flexibility exercises also help ease stiffness and posture changes that might happen after breast cancer surgery, reconstruction (especially reconstruction that uses tissue from another part of your body), or radiation. Flexibility exercises also can ease stress and make you more relaxed.

Type of Flexibility Exercise Equipment You Need Where You Can Do It
Stretching nothing really; a towel or belt may be used to deepen certain stretches by holding the towel with both hands and gently pulling yourself deeper into the stretch just about anywhere there’s enough room; you can also do stretches in a pool or hot tub
Yoga yoga mat, comfortable clothing yoga studio or gym (some classes are outdoors); there are various types of yoga -- ask about the type and intensity level before you go
Tai Chi (ancient Chinese art of gentle motion) comfortable clothing classes may be taught indoors or out; there are various types of tai chi -- ask about the type and intensity level before you go
Foam/lacrosse ball rolling (over muscles) foam roller and/or lacrosse ball usually indoors but can be done outside
Pilates mat, comfortable clothing; machines may be used at a Pilates studio but the mat exercises alone provide a good flexibility workout Pilates studio, gym

If you’ve been diagnosed with lymphedema, you will likely need to wear a compression garment and take other precautions when you exercise. For more information, please visit our Lymphedema and Exercise page.

Start slowly: Your breast cancer surgeon will likely give you gentle stretches to do at home as you’re recovering from surgery. Before you start any other flexibility exercises, make sure you have the OK from your surgeon and doctor. Before you stretch or foam roll, walk for about 5 or 10 minutes -- muscles stretch more easily when they’re warm. If you’re taking a yoga or Pilates class, the instructor will do warm-up exercises before starting the flexibility exercises. Make sure you tell the instructor before the class starts that you’ve been treated for breast cancer so that he or she can offer you modifications to poses that could stress your arm or shoulder.

If you’re stretching at home, try to do two stretching sessions a day. Gradually lengthen the time that you hold a stretch, and don’t strain to hold it. If you feel any pain, release the stretch.

Start at a light intensity and up the intensity when you’re ready.

Exercise intensity can be measured two ways:

  • how you feel, or perceived exertion (one example is to use a scale of 1-10, with 1 being sitting on the couch and 10 being the absolute most that you can do)
  • heart rate (subtract your age from 220 to get your maximum heart rate -- the highest number of times your heart can contract in 1 minute)

Light exercise intensity: no changes in breathing -- you can easily carry on a conversation or sing; 40% to 50% of your maximum heart rate.

Moderate exercise intensity: your breathing gets faster, but you’re not out of breath -- you can carry on a conversation but can’t sing; 50% to 70% of your maximum heart rate.

Vigorous exercise intensity: your breathing is deep and fast and you can’t say more than a few words without pausing for breath; 70% to 85% of your maximum heart rate.

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