Study: Weight Lifting Helps Breast Cancer Survivors Stay Healthy

physical therapist helps a senior woman lift weights

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have found that weight lifting can help breast cancer survivors keep the physical fitness they need to perform everyday activities and live independently.

Maintaining physical function can also help prevent falls, bone fractures, and disabilities, and might even help prevent premature death.

The study was published in the July 1 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

According to the study’s authors, survivors of breast cancer are at a greater risk than the general population of developing frailty, defined as having problems that may include decreased muscle strength, weak bones, and becoming easily tired. For the study, researchers looked at data from the Physical Activity and Lymphedema (PAL) trial to determine whether slowly increased weight lifting could increase muscle strength among breast cancer survivors and help them avoid frailty and maintain physical function. The PAL trial was originally designed to test whether weight lifting was safe for breast cancer survivors who had or were at risk of lymphedema (severe swelling in the arm that can follow breast cancer treatment), and found that it was.

The physical function study involved 295 survivors of breast cancer that had not spread (metastasized). Half the women took part in slowly progressive weight lifting twice a week. After 1 year, half as many women in the weight lifting group lost physical function as did women in the control group. Loss of physical function was defined as a 10-point decrease on a scale derived from a questionnaire. More specifically, 12 out of 148 women in the weight lifting group, or 8.1%, lost physical function, compared with 24 out of 147 women in the control group, or 16.3%.

According to the study’s authors, the findings are significant because each 10-point decrease in physical function among breast cancer survivors increases their risk of premature death by an estimated 6%. The study shows that weight lifting can be incorporated into physical therapy for breast cancer survivors to help them stay healthy. The authors say more research is needed to study whether other types of exercise, including walking, would achieve the same benefit.

A careful approach

According to co-author Justin C. Brown, women in the study started with very light weight, sometimes as little as 1 or 2 pounds, and perfected their form and technique under supervision of a trainer before adding a little more weight. And even then, if they had pain, they backed off.

“The mantra we followed was, ‘Start low; progress slow; listen to your body,’” said Brown. “If women had aches and pains that were new or worsening, we reduced their exercise. Women were not thrown into the deep end of the gym.”

For women who do not have access to a professional trainer or equipment, Brown recommends finding very light household objects to lift – such as a can of soup.

Women in the study who had lymphedema were required to wear a compression sleeve when they lifted weights. Brown says women who have a lymphedema sleeve should wear one when exercising. Those who don’t may want to talk to their doctor to find out if they could benefit from a lymphedema compression sleeve.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Weight Lifting and Physical Function Among Survivors of Breast Cancer: A Post Hoc Analysis of a Randomized Controlled Trial. Published in the July 1 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology (Vol. 33, No. 19). First author Justin C. Brown, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

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