Strength/Resistance Exercise

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Strength exercises (also called resistance exercises) make your muscles work harder by adding weight or resistance to the movement. Flexibility exercises, such as yoga, can be strength exercises if you do them quickly, increase the number of repetitions, or add weight to the exercise. See the chart below for some examples of strength exercises.

Benefits: Strength exercises can help fix muscle imbalance or weakness after breast cancer surgery. They also strengthen bones, improve balance and posture, and boost quality of life by making chores (carrying groceries, vacuuming) and recreation (playing with children or grandchildren or playing sports) easier and more enjoyable.

Type of Strength Exercise Equipment You Need Where You Can Do It
Weight lifting barbell and weight plates, dumbbells, kettlebells, weight machines, comfortable clothing indoors, at home, if you have the equipment, or a gym
Band resistance exercises resistance or exercise band, comfortable clothing indoors, at home, if you have the equipment, or a gym
Kettlebell exercises kettlebell, comfortable clothing indoors, at home, if you have the equipment, or a gym
Body weight exercises (pull-ups, push-ups, handstands, etc.) comfortable clothing indoors or outside

Some of these exercises may be risky for some breast cancer patients. It’s important to remember that everyone is different. You may be able to do some or all of the exercises listed above with no problems. Still, since everyone woman is affected in a unique way after treatment, these exercises may not be right for everyone. To learn more, visit the Exercise Safely page.

Start slowly: Before you do any type of strength training, get the OK from your doctor and surgeon. It’s also a good idea to wait until:

  • any surgical drains are removed
  • you have no open wounds from surgery or radiation therapy
  • you can have upright posture
  • you have a comfortable range of motion in your joints, especially your shoulders

Once you have your doctor’s OK, it’s a good idea to visit a physical therapist for a structural evaluation and to figure out how much weight you can safely lift. If you didn’t exercise before your diagnosis, you may have issues unrelated to breast cancer treatment that may limit your exercise, such as limited leg mobility or weak abdominal muscles. If you’ve had lymph nodes removed, it’s always good idea to schedule some time with a lymphedema specialist (even if you don’t have lymphedema) to assess your arm’s exercise capacity.

Always start with very light weights and only move up gradually 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.

There is a bit of controversy around strength exercises for breast cancer survivors. Some doctors and women are worried that strength training -- lifting weights in particular -- can trigger the onset of lymphedema -- swelling of the soft tissues of the arm, hand, trunk, or breast that may be accompanied by numbness, discomfort, and sometimes infection.

Other doctors and women think weight lifting is OK based on the Physical Activity and Lymphedema (PAL) trial, which showed that starting very light and progressively lifting heavier weights might be better than not exercising an arm at risk for lymphedema after breast cancer.

If you’re doing strength exercises and something doesn’t feel right or you have pain in your arm or hand, stop immediately, tell your trainer, and talk to your doctor or a lymphedema specialist.

If you’ve been diagnosed with lymphedema after breast cancer surgery, there are precautions you should take before you do strength exercises, including wearing a well-fitted compression garment or possibly wearing protective gloves. For more information, please visit our Lymphedema and Exercise page.

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