Is it beneficial to exercise after breast cancer treatment?

We have strong evidence that being physically active improves quality of life in women living with and beyond breast cancer.

In December 2022, we released an important piece of research showing strong evidence that being physically active improves quality of life in women living with and beyond breast cancer.

In this Q and A, Dr Helen Croker, a senior scientist at World Cancer Research Fund, explains much more about the research.

Helen, tell us more about what this study actually shows.

This new evidence is not a single study but rather a study of studies – we call it a systematic review. A team at Imperial College London, funded by us, reviewed the literature on exercise and quality of life for women with breast cancer. It’s World Cancer Research Fund’s first ever output on quality of life – our previous research related to survival and risk of recurrence after a cancer diagnosis.

What did the researchers do?

Looking at 14,500 women taking part in 79 trials, mainly in North America and Europe, the researchers examined whether there were any differences in quality of life according to the type, amount and timing of physical activity women did before, during and after treatment, and asked study participants about their experiences and lives.

And what did the researchers find out?

They found strong evidence that physical activity improved quality of life – with benefits for different aspects of quality of life including emotional and physical health. What’s also really important is that they found little evidence that physical activity caused any harm in this group (for example, injury) so we’re confident about now advising women with breast cancer to be active under the supervision of healthcare professionals. We also recommend that physical activity is routinely incorporated into clinical care.

Did the study look at women undergoing treatment or afterwards?

Both – but the evidence of benefits was stronger after primary treatment, by which we mean the main stage of treatment but not any long-term hormonal treatments. They did look at people exercising during primary treatment but the evidence of benefit was less strong.

Why did you look at quality of life? Isn’t it more important to research into keeping people alive or stopping cancer coming back?

Well, we look at both – we recently published a study showing that exercise reduces the risk of dying for women with breast cancer. But we’re not just trying to extend people’s lives. This new study is about allowing people to live as normally as possibly and function in their day to day life. Quality of life is not just about leisure time but about feeling well enough to do your job, pick up your kids, do the shopping. It’s really important and that’s why we’re excited about this new evidence.

What about people experiencing fatigue as a side-effect of cancer or cancer treatment – do you expect them to take up exercise?

We’re talking about activity, not only exercise, here – which could be jogging, swimming, walking etc, but could also just be moving about the house, doing chores or walking to the shops. Even though it’s hard, doing light to moderate physical activity every day can actually help improve fatigue and make you feel more energised. We recognise people are at different starting points. If you weren’t active before your diagnosis, you shouldn’t feel under pressure to do too much too quickly, but remember that anything is better than nothing.

And what about people diagnosed with a different type of cancer?

This study only looked at breast cancer but we’re also funding studies looking into the impact of activity on other cancer types. For example, a study at the University of Aberdeen is looking at stomach cancer and activity, one in Australia is looking at activity and bone cancer, and a recently completed grant that we’re awaiting the results of looked at ovarian cancer and exercise.

So what’s your advice for people reading this who have breast cancer?

We recommend and encourage women with breast cancer to be active – all exercise was shown to be beneficial. For us as researchers, the focus is now on understanding whether the type, amount and timing of physical activity makes a difference to quality of life, as this would allow more specific guidance to be developed for women.

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