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Breast Cancer Survivors Benefit from Weight Lifting

woman lifting weights

UPDATE 10/3/11: New research from the University of Pennsylvania confirms the benefit of weight lifting for breast cancer surgery recovery.

For many of the more than 2 million American women who are breast cancer survivors, life after their diagnosis can be the archetype of picture-perfect health. From eating copious amounts of fresh vegetables and fruit to faithfully adhering to doctor appointments, many breast cancer survivors lead incredibly healthy lives in an attempt to stave off a recurrence of their disease and keep their health in tip-top shape.

But one healthy behavior that breast cancer survivors have been discouraged to partake in is weight lifting, for it is believed that using weights and exercise machines induces swelling and pain around the breast tissue, particularly for those women who have a higher risk for lymphedema, or swollen and painful fluid-filled nodes that occur on the arms or on the hands. Women prone to lymphedema are often discouraged from lifting children, playing tennis or golf, or carrying a heavy bag. But according to a new study in the New England Journal of Medicine, these warnings from doctors may start to quiet down.

Women who participated in weight training sessions following breast cancer treatment had fewer symptoms of lymphedema and greater overall muscle strength. In addition, not only did strength increase, but also range of mobility and self-confidence in a number of the women in the study.

This study illustrates not just the wide-reaching benefits of strength training exercises, but it also shows us how our conventionally-held beliefs about certain areas of health may need to be reexamined. But thanks to well-controlled and boundary-pushing research endeavors like this one, as new data sheds light onto different outcomes, theories change and so do our health behaviors.

Lead researcher of the study, Kathryn Schmitz, an exercise scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, suggested that breast cancer survivors should not rush from the hospital to the gym, but rather they should start out slow and work with a certified personal trainer so that techniques are learned properly and gradually.

If you are a breast cancer survivor, it is important to speak with your doctor first before starting your own weight-training program.

Here is the complete research study from the New England Journal of Medicine.

August 13th, 2009

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