Exercise Tips for Women With Metastatic Breast Cancer

by Amy Hendel, P.A. Health Writer

Metastatic breast cancer (MBC) can be overwhelming. This cancer is not a specific type of breast cancer, but rather the most advanced stage of breast cancer. In this case, the primary cancer in the breast has spread to other parts of the body - most frequently the bones, lungs, brain, or liver. You will likely have ongoing therapy and close surveillance. Is it beneficial to exercise when living with MBC? If so, how much exercise is helpful, and what types? Read on to learn the dos and don'ts.

Researcher reviewing exercise study results on tablet.

What Does the Research Say?

A 2009 study in Physiotherapy reviewed past studies that examined the effects of exercise on individuals living with MBC. The findings suggest that exercise can enhance quality of life, but it was clear that caution should be used, with exercise recommendations personalized. Breastcancer.org offers recent studies that suggest that exercise can help to ease cancer-related fatigue and aromatase inhibitor side effects and can help to limit chemo brain and boost cognition.

Woman stretching before morning river trail run.

Exercise Offers Other Confirmed Benefits

You may want to exercise but feel too tired or unsure where to start. Knowing that there are many other exercise benefits may inspire you to get moving. Exercise can improve overall fitness, strength, stamina, and flexibility. It can improve appetite levels, but it can also help with weight loss and maintenance, which may be helpful if your medication has induced weight changes. Most importantly, exercise can reduce stress and boost your immune system. Let’s talk about specific exercises.

doctor writing prescription

Get an Exercise Prescription

MBC therapy should include an exercise prescription. Your doctor can offer recommendations or refer you to a physical therapist or a personal trainer proficient in working with individuals diagnosed with MBC. If you’ve had a mastectomy and your lymph nodes were removed, you may be experiencing movement restrictions or arm swelling — these professionals can help alleviate those issues. Even just one visit can allow you to craft a workout program with milestone goals.

senior couple walking

Get Aerobic

If you feel fatigued or are just beginning to feel strong enough to exercise, then a walking program can be your first “step.” Walking provides bone-bearing exercise, since your heel strikes the ground as you walk. As you support your cardiovascular health by raising your heart rate as you walk, you are also supporting bone health. Bone loss is common in patients with breast cancer. As you get stronger, you can gradually increase distance, introduce a faster pace, or even begin to jog. Consider swimming too.

senior woman lifting light weights

Let's Get Muscular: Resistance Training

Building muscle mass can help you burn calories more efficiently and counter muscle wasting. Resistance training also helps to build or maintain bone mass. Start with light free weights or join a gym and use weight machines on light settings. Use your own body weight and perform traditional pushups, triceps pushups, squats, and plie squats. Using resistance bands, which come in a variety of thicknesses, can help improve post-mastectomy arm swelling or numbness.

Yoga: Balance, Flexibility, Meditation and More

A 2011 study found that yoga normalized cortisol levels, lowering anxiety, depression, and fatigue severity. An earlier study found that an eight-week yoga protocol with gentle yoga postures, breathing exercises, and meditation among other modalities helped women with MBC to experience less pain and fatigue and higher levels of invigoration, acceptance, and relaxation. Yoga can improve balance and flexibility, supporting overall health and well-being. Choose from a range of yoga disciplines.

group of seniors doing tai chi

Tai Chi: Empowerment

Tai chi has been found to reduce inflammation in breast cancer survivors. Researchers continue to look at possible benefits of tai chi including enhancement of immune system, pain relief, and reduction of anxiety and stress in people with cancer. Tai chi, as a complementary therapy, is credited with creating a positive energy force by balancing yin and yang, opposing internal forces. It can also improve balance, lower blood pressure, and reduce stiffness. It’s a fabulous match for people with MBC.

Let's Get Strong and Destress: Boxing and Karate

Professional boxing is hailed as one of the toughest physical sports — training sessions challenge all body parts. Boxing has become a popular trend because, even when done at a light level, it offers cardio and endurance training, improved body strength and hand-eye coordination, and contact with a bag, which can help you to release stress. Just build up slowly. Karate is credited with improving physical and mental health and self-esteem. Both options may be well-matched to someone with MBC.

Woman catching her breath on city street at the end of run.

When to Push, When to Step Back

Start slow when you decide to re-engage with exercise. Heed signals from your body, which can come in the form of fatigue, discomfort, or frank pain. Alternating more challenging workout days with more forgiving and lower-intensity exercise days is one way to avoid taxing your body. If you’re having an “off day” (or several) when side effects from medications hit, consider just gentle walking or yoga opportunities — even five or 10 minutes at most. Exercise is meant to build you up, not take you down.

Enlist a Buddy or Friends

A workout buddy can offer support and comradery. A buddy, some friends, or a group of women who are similarly diagnosed with MBC can help you stay the course, weather challenges, and motivate and even comfort you as you commit to an exercise program. One recent study showed that having an exercise buddy can help you increase exercise time. Exercise time is not only an opportunity to get in shape and get stronger, but also a chance to share, laugh, or vent with others. So buddy up!

happy woman in workout clothes stretching

Exercise is Brilliant Therapy

There’s no standard approach for exercise for someone with MBC because it depends on your age, other conditions, and your personal state of physical function. However, exercise can help improve body composition, body image, quality of life, and strength during treatments and recovery. After all, exercise is associated with extending life and reducing mortality. Embrace it as an alternative, vital therapy and talk with your doctor about creating a personalized regimen.

Amy Hendel, P.A.
Meet Our Writer
Amy Hendel, P.A.

Known as "The HealthGal", Amy Hendel P.A. is a medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, health coach and brand ambassador. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, find her on Twitter @Healthgal1103 and on Facebook @TheHealthGal. Check “Daily Health News” at healthgal.com. Her personal mantra? “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”