Can exercise trim your risk for breast cancer recurrence?

The Bottom Line

  • Breast cancer treatment can take a toll on your mental and physical health, and seriously impact your quality of life. 
  • Exercise may help improve quality of life, and emotional and physical well-being in women with breast cancer after treatment with radiation and/or chemotherapy. 
  • There is still not enough high quality research to say whether exercise can reduce the risk that your cancer will return.

Making it through breast cancer treatment is a huge accomplishment. With your treatment behind you, you may find yourself looking towards the next phase of your journey – staying healthy and cancer-free.

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women, globally (1;2). Within Canada, it is the third-most commonly diagnosed cancer, accounting for 25% of all cancer diagnoses in females (3).

Women with breast cancer can face many challenges stemming from the cancer itself or the treatment that comes along with it. These include: damage to the heart muscle and structure and functioning of the nervous system, weight gain, changes in self-esteem and sexual functioning, early menopause, having a hard time sleeping, feeling tired, swelling, leukemia, and infertility (2;4;5;6;7). There are many strategies and services available that can help you manage these challenges, so talk to your doctor about any concerns that you have. One topic worth discussing is exercise, and how it might help you on your road to recovery.

The benefits of exercise are well known. Exercise can help keep your bones healthy, improve blood sugar control, treat depression, build muscle strength and more. But what if you’ve undergone treatment for breast cancer? Is there evidence to suggest that exercise can combat some of the mental and physical challenges that accompany the disease and its treatment? Furthermore, does exercise reduce the chance of the cancer returning? New research has explored these questions (2).

What the research tells us

A recent systematic review considered the effects of many different types of exercise including: aerobic exercise such as walking, cycling, or dancing; resistance training such as weight-based exercises; or a combination of both. On average, exercise programs lasted 8-12 weeks for sessions of one hour, with sessions usually occurring at least 3 times per week. Women completed these programs in groups, alone at home, or a combination of the two.

So, let’s cut right to the chase. Unfortunately, due to a lack of high quality research it is unclear if exercise reduces your risk of cancer recurrence, or your risk of dying from the disease.

But there is some good news! The review found that exercise could have benefits among women with breast cancer after they have completed chemotherapy and/or radiation. In the short term, exercise may increase quality of life by a small to moderate amount, while also possibly improving emotional well-being, anxiety, fitness, and perceptions of one’s physical functioning. If you exercise over a longer period of time, you may also start to feel less tired and feel motivated to exercise more, which can help maintain fitness improvements. What’s more, exercise after breast cancer treatment doesn’t appear to have much of a downside, with the review reporting few minor side effects such as discomfort and stiffness (2).

Though the jury’s still out on the relationship between exercise and breast cancer death and recurrence, going out for a walk, getting on that bike, or picking up those weights may lead to physical and mental health benefits.

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  1. Ferlay J, Soerjomataram I, Ervik M, et al. GLOBOCAN 2012: Estimated cancer incidence, mortality and prevalence worldwide in 2012. [Internet] 2013. [cited July 2018]. Available from  
  2. Lahart IM, Metsios GS, Nevill AM, et al. Physical activity for women with breast cancer after adjuvant therapy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018; 1:CD011292. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD011292.pub2.  
  3. Canadian Cancer Society. Canadian cancer statistics. [Internet] 2018. [cited June 2018]. Available from  
  4. Azim HA Jr, de Azambuja E, Colozza M, et al. Long-term toxic effects of adjuvant chemotherapy in breast cancer. Ann Oncol. 2011; 22(9):1939-1947.
  5. Beisecker A, Cook MR, Ashworth J, et al. Side effects of adjuvant chemotherapy: Perceptions of node-negative breast cancer patients. Psychooncology. 1997; 6(2):85-93.
  6. Bovelli D, Plataniotis G, Roila F. Cardiotoxicity of chemotherapeutic agents and radiotherapy-related heart disease: ESMO clinical practice guidelines. Ann Oncol. 2010; 21(Suppl 5):277-282.     
  7. de Jong N, Courtens AM, Abu-Saad HH, et al. Fatigue in patients with breast cancer receiving adjuvant chemotherapy: A review of the literature. Cancer Nurs. 2002; 25(4):283-297.

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.