Exercise for breast cancer patients improves survival rate and lower risk of recurrence

A little exercise goes a long way for breast cancer patients


It’s no secret that exercise is beneficial for breast cancer patients. Years of research show a positive correlation between physical activity and cancer survival rates.  A new study is now shedding some light on just how much exercise you need to reap the rewards.

A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute suggests that even a small amount of exercise helps high-risk breast cancer patients live longer and increases their likelihood of remaining cancer-free after treatment.

The research revealed impressive results for women who met the minimum federal exercise guidelines before and after treatment: at least 2.5 hours of moderate exercise or 1.25 hours of vigorous activity per week.

  • 68% higher survival rate
  • 55% lower risk of cancer recurrence

What’s more? Even patients who only began exercising after their treatment still saw significant benefits.

  • 43% higher survival rate
  • 46% lower risk of cancer recurrence


As part of a clinical trial run by SWOG Cancer Research Network, the study sought to determine the impact of the amount of exercise, and its timing, on women with breast cancers that are high-risk, or likely to return.

Dr. Rikki Cannioto, an assistant professor of oncology in the Department of Cancer Prevention and Control at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, led the study. She and her research team surveyed more than 1300 patients with stage II or stage III breast cancer, as well as high-risk stage I cancer, in which the primary tumor was large, or the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes.

Study subjects were asked to share information about their exercise habits four different times: before their diagnosis, during treatment, one year after treatment, and two years after treatment. This long-term time frame sets the SWOG study apart from previous studies similar in nature, which have typically relied on data collected on just one occasion.


“Aiming for as little as 2.5 hours a week of exercise can have a big impact for women with high-risk breast cancer,” says Cannioto. “Our research shows that some physical activity is far better, in terms of cancer survival, than no activity at all and it is just as beneficial as longer workouts.”

In addition to the well-documented benefit of increased cancer survival rates, the SWOG study also showed significant benefits of exercise for breast cancer patients when it comes to recurrence. Women who met the minimum federal guidelines for physical activity before and after treatment were 55% more likely to remain cancer-free. In fact, even those patients who started exercising after treatment lowered their risk of recurrence by 46%.

Perhaps most notably, Cannioto points out that simply meeting the minimum guidelines for exercise greatly improves your survival chances. Researchers found that even a few hours of consistent, weekly exercise yield similar benefits compared to patients who work out longer or more often.

“What these results suggest for doctors – and patients – is that even a modest exercise routine, taken up after cancer treatment, can help women with high-risk breast cancer live longer and healthier lives,” Cannioto notes. “It’s never too late to start walking, doing yoga, cycling, or swimming – and that activity certainly appears to pay off.”


With such compelling research, it’s easy to see the benefits of exercise for breast cancer patients and want to get moving right away. However, it’s important to start a new exercise routine safely. Here are a few things to consider:

Do your research – Learn more about the federal guidelines for exercise to help formulate a plan. Also, read up on the impact of physical activity on cancer patients.

Talk to your doctor – Before making any changes to your physical activity level, speak with your physician. They can help you develop a plan that will achieve your goals in a safe manner.

Set goals – Make sure you set goals for how much exercise you want to get. Goals help you stay accountable. You can also consider finding a friend or family member to be your “accountability partner.”

Mix it up – Variety is an essential part of any exercise routine. Not only will it help you avoid boredom or burn out, but you’ll also benefit from trying various types of activity like aerobic exercise, strength training or flexibility training.

Think functional – We tend to think of exercise as something very intentional, like going to the gym or riding a bike. But there are plenty of everyday tasks to help you stay active. Walking to the mailbox daily, tending to your garden or doing laundry are all great examples of “functional fitness” activities.