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Treating Breast Cancer Early

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Exercising After Breast Cancer: How to Create a Sustainable and Joyful Practice

Medically Reviewed By Gregory Minnis, DPT
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I was only a few months out of breast cancer treatment when I read the headline “For Women with Breast Cancer, Regular Exercise May Improve Survival.” New research indicated that by adding more intense exercise to my life, I could lower my chance of recurrence by 46%.  A light bulb went off in my head. This was actionable.

Reading the study results was one thing, but I was still exhausted from radiation. Could I create a sustainable exercise practice that I enjoyed and could keep up long-term? 

Start small

When I started adding in exercise after breast cancer, I started small. I didn’t know if I had the energy for a 30-minute workout. In fact, I was barely making it through the day without needing a nap. How was I going to work out when I was so tired?

I knew that exercising might help me regain my energy, but I was too exhausted to start with 30 minutes at a time. So, I decided that something was better than nothing.

I started with 10 minutes at a time. I didn’t know if that short workout duration would make a difference, but it was something. 

I was pleasantly surprised to see that 10 minutes of aerobic exercise increased my energy, improved my mood, and helped me to sleep better. 

Starting small kept the routine manageable and prevented me from getting too sore, exhausted, or overwhelmed. This was something I could keep up.

Make it easy

There have been times in my life when I’ve tried to add more fitness to my life. I’d sign up for a dance class or arrange to go to the gym with a friend. Unfortunately, the routines never stuck for more than a few months because they added too much complexity to my life. I would tire of driving to the dance studio or ensuring my boys were cared for during my fitness time.

So, my workouts became chasing after the kids or walking the dogs, because those were easy. I could keep up with those.

When I started working out after breast cancer, it was mid-2020, and gyms were not an option. I could do something outside or explore some of the online fitness options. I discovered a few services that allowed me to exercise at home whenever I wanted.

I loved how easy and convenient it was to choose my workouts. Suddenly, working out became as easy as picking a TV show to watch! Fitness became easier, and as a result, I could sustain the practice much longer than I had in previous attempts.

Keep it enjoyable

My husband has run seven marathons. He gets a deep sense of accomplishment from completing races that test his mental and physical stamina.

I would meet him at the finish line and see how exhausted and drained he was. A few times, he would ask me, “Wouldn’t it be great to do one of these together?”

“Umm, no thanks, honey, I’d rather not.”

Running isn’t fun for me. Every step I take requires me to coach myself to keep going. Even on the high school track team, I ran the 100-meter hurdles because running and jumping were more fun than just running!

When I was younger, I loved to dance, rollerblade, ski, ride my bike, and ice skate. I could do those things for hours with a smile on my face. In contrast, running, weight lifting, or using an exercise machine felt torturous. 

As I began my new exercise routine after breast cancer, I focused on doing workouts that I enjoyed. HIIT had short intervals and body weight exercises that could build my strength – and keep it fresh and fun. I also found some low-impact dance workouts that were challenging to learn but didn’t strain my joints with too much jumping.

Because I’m enjoying my daily workouts, it is easier to keep them as part of my routine. They have become something I look forward to rather than dread.

The benefits of sustaining our exercise practice

In spring of 2022, a little over two years after my cancer treatment, my husband and I were on vacation together in Colorado. After several days of driving, we decided to do something more active. Dave found an e-bike tour of the Garden of the Gods Park. I was intrigued but didn’t know if I could keep up with everyone.

I hopped on the e-bike, and we rode through the gates. As I gazed at the red rock scenery and glided up and down the hills, tears rolled down my face. I felt like myself again — free, strong, and healthy. I realized that I hadn’t been this fit since my early 20s. 

I’d been exercising a little bit every day since 2020. Even though I couldn’t necessarily see the impact of the workouts on my body, it was clear from my stamina and energy during the ride that they were making a difference. 

As we paused to take a photo, I savored the joy in that moment.

I was no longer a fatigued breast cancer patient. I was me again.

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Medical Reviewer: Gregory Minnis, DPT
Last Review Date: 2024 Mar 26
View All Treating Breast Cancer Early Articles
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