With people spending more time indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be hard to start or maintain a regular exercise routine. But according to Sami Mansfield, certified cancer exercise trainer and CrossFit Level 1 coach, staying active is important, particularly for people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“In the breast cancer world, the number one reported side effect from treatments and surgery is fatigue, so having muscle mass really helps general fatigue, as well as emotional fatigue,” she said in an interview on the Breastcancer.org podcast. “Sleep is an incredible challenge to breast cancer survivors due to medicine or even fear, anxiety, and worry, so having a good exercise regimen, even 5–10 minutes a day, improves sleep.”
Aside from the overall health benefits, exercise can positively impact people with breast cancer in a number of ways.
“One of the number one benefits of exercise is energy and endurance,” said Mansfield. “Being able to live your life, going to the grocery store, functionally carrying in your groceries, etc., can be easier with exercise.”
And for those facing surgery, the strength and flexibility you get with a regular exercise routine can help you better prepare for procedures, as well as recover faster.
“Thinking about the muscular structure of the shoulder girdle — which is the joint that’s going to be affected by breast surgeries — having tissue that’s stronger, more flexible, and with better range of motion is always going to be more beneficial,” said Mansfield. “With breast surgeries, fitness can help recovery not only in the early range of motion, but also in lowering your risk of things like lymphedema and making sure you have less dysfunction in your neck, and in supporting your head and down your back. It gives you the strength and capacity to be able to recover quickly and get back to regular activity.”
Many people treated for breast cancer experience reduced strength and flexibility due to inactivity during treatment and recovery.
“The number one thing that everyone going through or who has gone through breast cancer is general de-conditioning,” said Mansfield. “This happens in large part because we’re going to different appointments, we’re taking different medicines that may not make us feel well, we’re having surgery, and downtime, so just general de-conditioning happens naturally.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to gym closures and people staying home more. Many who already had or wanted to start a fitness routine find it hard to find the time and resources to work out at home.
To build or stick with a long-term fitness habit despite the limitations caused by the pandemic, Mansfield suggests these strategies:
Use what you have
You don’t need to buy exercise equipment to get a good home workout. Mansfield says this is an opportunity to be creative and have a little fun with exercise. “If you have a suitcase or a round laundry basket, carrying it up and down a hallway or around your kitchen island is a great form of exercise to use muscles in a way you’re not used to doing.”
Mansfield also suggests finding workouts on YouTube, where classes from Planet Fitness, Orange Theory, and Yoga with Adrienne are always available. “There’s so much that’s free and a full workout — you just have to push play,” she said.
Schedule your workouts
Mansfield said the best way to stick to a routine is to build it into your regular daily schedule. She suggests aiming for at least 20 minutes of exercise each day. “I encourage doing something every single day and make a schedule or a plan,” she said. “Put it in your schedule the way you do your lunch or a work meeting. It’s really a priority to take care of yourself.”
Mix it up
To keep your workouts interesting and avoid overworking any specific part of your body, Mansfield said it’s a good idea to add variety. “Alternate your days, so one day you get some form of aerobic exercise — walking, biking, going up and down stairs, jogging, or running,” she said. “On the second or third day, focus on resistance training — those could be things like sit to stand from a chair, a squat, or pushups on the vanity in the bathroom or kitchen counter. Alternating those exercises will give some muscles and joints a break during the days.”
Listen to your body
In a gym or exercise class setting, it’s easy to ignore signals from your body in favor of keeping up with others around you. Mansfield said quarantine is the perfect time to break that habit and get in touch with what your body needs and can do.
“See how you’re feeling, but also keep in mind that if you’re doing activities that are abnormal, like sitting in a different chair working during the day or relaxing during the evening, your back may not feel the same as it did before what we’re going through right now,” she said. “Functionally, you may be tighter in different joints, so it’s important to listen to your body.”
Keep it simple
Mansfield said keeping your workouts uncomplicated is the best way to develop an exercise routine that you’ll stick with, even after quarantine. “On day 1, do 20 minutes of aerobic exercise, and on day 2, do 20 minutes of resistance exercise,” she said. “Make that your simple regimen.”
Above all, Mansfield said now is the time to be gentle with yourself and develop a routine of moving that will help you feel your best, both physically and mentally.
“Enjoy doing a little bit every day and be proud of yourself, because it is definitely something that’s going to make a difference in your short- or long-term physical and mental well-being,” she said.
Written by: Jennifer Bringle, contributing writer
This content was developed with contributions from the following experts:
Sami Mansfield, certified cancer exercise trainer and CrossFit Level 1 coach
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