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Aerobic Exercise

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Aerobic exercise uses the large muscles in your body in rhythmic, repetitive motions. See the chart below for some examples.

Benefits: Aerobic exercise makes your heart, lungs, blood vessels, and muscles work more efficiently, increasing your stamina and endurance. It also boosts your mood, helps you sleep better, and reduces your stress. It can also reduce your risk of breast cancer coming back (recurrence), as well as reduce the risks of heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis.

Type of Aerobic Exercise Equipment You Need Where You Can Do It
Walking walking shoes, comfortable clothing just about anywhere (sidewalk, track, mall, treadmill)
Running/jogging running shoes, comfortable shorts or running pants, comfortable shirt, sports bra inside on a treadmill, outside on running paths, trails, sidewalks (watch out for pedestrians, bikes, and cars), or a track
Bike riding bicycle, comfortable clothing, helmet outside, on bike trails or bike lanes; check your local ordinances about riding a bike on sidewalks
Elliptical machine*/stair stepper elliptical or stair stepper machine, comfortable clothing inside your home if you own a machine, at a gym if you don’t
Dancing (Zumba, belly dancing, flamenco, tap, ballet, square dancing, ballroom dancing, etc.) comfortable clothing; certain types of dance (flamenco or ballet, for example) require special shoes in your home if you have a large, empty room; at a dance studio, gym, or classroom
Skiing skis, poles, boots, helmet, hat, goggles, insulated jacket and pants or bibs, gloves, and socks cross-country skiing* can be done at parks or ski resorts; downhill skiing is usually done at a ski resort
Skating ice or roller skates or roller blades, socks, comfortable clothing, wrist and elbow guards, helmet roller skating and roller blading can be done on jogging paths and sidewalks; ice skating can be done on indoor or outdoor rinks
Tennis* racquet, balls, comfortable clothing, court shoes indoor or outdoor tennis court
Swimming bathing suit and towel; goggles and swim cap may be required at certain pools public or private pools; certain public lakes allow swimming
Aerobics comfortable clothing, court shoes various types of aerobics classes are offered at many gyms; you can also move along to a DVD at home
Rowing* comfortable clothing, a shell and oars if you’re rowing outside, a rowing machine if you’re rowing inside outside on a river or lake, inside on a rowing machine at the gym or your home
Hiking hiking boots or shoes, socks, comfortable clothing appropriate for the weather, water bottles; a hat, pack, sunglasses, insect repellent, and first-aid kit; hiking poles are optional outside at public and national parks
Basketball court shoes, comfortable clothing, basketball, hoop inside at a gym or school with a court, outside on courts, or anywhere with a hoop
Golf clubs, bag, shoes, balls, tees, comfortable clothing (you may be able to rent clubs and a bag at certain golf courses) outside at public or private golf course

* According to Cathy Bryan, M.Ed., American College of Sports Medicine-certified Cancer and Exercise personal trainer, elliptical machines, tennis, rowing and cross-country skiing may be examples that may push the limit toward overloading the arm on the side of your surgery if you’re simultaneously doing another exercise program. “The main thing to remember is doing an exercise program in a way that allows you to gradually increase resistance. Some exercises — tennis or rowing, for example — don’t allow for that. You’re either doing the movement or you’re not. So in the beginning, focus on exercises that allow for gradual build-up in resistance. That’s why weights are a great example — you can start with 1 lb. and build up from there.”

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.

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: Before you start, make sure you have clearance from your doctor and surgeon to exercise. To start, try to do some type of aerobic exercise 3 times a week at a light intensity level. Add more days per week (or more time per day) of aerobic exercise staying at a light intensity level. When you’re just starting out, adding more time is more important than upping the intensity. When you feel ready, up the intensity slightly. You may not be able to keep the same intensity every day. That’s OK. Any aerobic activity you do is better than none. Some days you may be able to up the intensity even more. The important thing is to stick with it.

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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