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Hereditary Cancer Info > FORCE Publications > Newsletter > Archives > Exercise for Previvors and Survivors

Exercise for Previvors and Survivors: How Much, What Kind, and When?

by Kathryn Schmitz, PhD

You don't need to run a marathon to benefit from exercise.

A study by Mary Claire King demonstrated that previvors who are more physically active and maintain a healthy weight have reduced risk of breast cancer. If you are a previvor, exercise can help you to attain and maintain your best level of fitness so that if a cancer diagnosis occurs, you are in the best shape of your life for the fight of your life.

For cancer survivors, regular exercise helps to regain physical function; prevent, attenuate, or treat symptoms resulting from cancer treatments (such as pain and fatigue); reduce fatigue, anxiety, and depression; improve sleep; and enjoy an overall improved quality of life.

The benefits of regular exercise are well documented for those who have and those who have not had a diagnosis of cancer. The evidence is so compelling that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Cancer Society, and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network have all issued clinical guidelines for regular exercise. Regardless of cancer history, the specific recommendations include:

  • 150 minutes per week of aerobic activity (such as walking, swimming, biking, or group aerobic fitness classes). If you need to start with walking laps around the dining room table, that's fine. Just increase your effort as you can.
  • Resistance training two to three times weekly. Simply put, gradually increase your ability to lift heavy things.
  • Flexibility activities on the days you do other exercise. Yoga is a terrific way to become more flexible and supple, but if that's not your thing, just stretch after exercise to keep yourself mobile. If you have had surgery on your chest, avoid poses and movements that put weight on the hands, elbows, shoulders, or head until you are cleared by a rehabilitation professional.

Some cancer survivors seem to think that because the symptoms and fatigue that happen after treatment are "expected," there is nothing that can be done to fix these problems, but that's not true! If you feel that you need some help to get going on an exercise program or you are unsure of what is safe, ask your doctor for help. A referral to a well-trained physical therapist or fitness professional could help you get back to your best level of fitness.

If you are a breast cancer survivor who has also undergone surgical removal of your ovaries, the Project HOPE exercise and diet research study funded by the Basser Research Center for BRCA of Penn Medicine's Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania might be of particular interest to you.

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