Exercise After Breast Cancer Surgery

Exercise After Breast Cancer Surgery

Your ability to exercise after breast cancer surgery depends on what your overall health and physical condition was before your diagnosis.

Breast cancer surgery can affect how well you can move your shoulder and arm, as well as how easily you can do daily activities, such as dressing yourself, bathing, and combing your hair.

It’s important to give yourself time to heal. Still, the day after surgery, you can start doing the basic exercises that your doctor or nurse show you how to do. These physical therapy exercises help you improve shoulder, arm, and upper body mobility as you heal.

It’s not safe to do certain exercises until the surgeon removes any drains and stitches. Your doctor may recommend waiting eight or more weeks before you do exercises to improve arm strength — especially if the surgeon removed many lymph nodes during mastectomy. Several nerves run through the chest and underarm area, which may be affected by breast cancer surgery, so you may find your muscles are weaker than they were before surgery.

During the first three to seven days after surgery, the American Cancer Society recommends light exercise and deep breathing to improve mobility:

  • Use the arm on the same side as your surgery to bathe, comb your hair, get dressed, and eat as you typically do. It’s important to ask your doctor if you can lift heavier items.

  • Raise your arms to shoulder height — or as high as you can without pulling on your drains — and lower them again a few times. Repeat three or four times a day to help move lymph fluid out of your arm and help you regain range of motion.

  • Raise the arm on the same side as your surgery and open and close your hand 15 to 25 times. Then bend and straighten your elbow several times. You also can bend your elbow and touch the shoulder on the same side a few times, and then touch the opposite shoulder a few times.

  • Practice deep breathing using your diaphragm (the muscle that sits under your lungs) at least six times a day. Lie on your back and breathe in slowly. Keep slowly breathing in as much air as you can while trying to expand your chest and abdomen (push your navel out away from your spine). When you can’t breathe in any more air, relax and breathe out all the air. Repeat four or five times. Deep breathing makes it easier for your lungs to work.

The American Cancer Society also has instructions on how to do some of the most commonly recommended exercises after breast cancer surgery.

Once you have your doctor’s OK to do more, you may want to start with walking. Still, no matter which type of exercise you do, start at a low intensity and increase to moderate intensity very gradually and under your doctor’s guidance.


If you have any changes in your arm, hand, trunk, breast, or shoulder, including swelling, it’s essential to stop doing upper body exercises and see your doctor or lymphedema specialist. If you’ve been diagnosed with lymphedema after breast cancer surgery, there are precautions you should take before you exercise. These precautions include wearing a well-fitted compression garment or possibly wearing protective gloves.

If you’re going to do strength exercises after surgery, it’s best to work with a certified trainer who has experience designing exercise plans for people who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. Start with very low weights or low resistance and increase very slowly.


Exercise after breast reconstruction

It’s important to give yourself enough time to heal after breast reconstruction before you start exercising — just as you do after surgery to remove breast cancer. You probably need more than eight weeks to heal after having reconstruction that moves skin, fat, and sometimes muscle from another area of your body (belly, back, buttocks, or thigh) to rebuild your breast.

In many cases, your surgeon may want you to start doing gentle stretching exercises, such as shoulder rolls or arm circles, two or three days after surgery. Ask your surgeon when you can move onto any strenuous exercise, such as high-impact aerobics, jogging, swimming, or lifting weights. Before you start doing any exercise, make sure you to get your surgeon’s OK.

The recommendations for specific exercises after breast reconstruction depend on the type of reconstruction surgery you’ve had. Your surgeon should give you information and examples of gentle stretching exercises and tell you when it’s safe for you to start.

Written by: Jamie DePolo, senior editor

Reviewed by 1 medical adviser
Kathryn Schmitz, PhD, MPH
Penn State University College of Medicine, Hershey, PA
Learn more about our advisory board

— Last updated on September 30, 2022, 10:01 PM

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