Exercise and Movement

How is this beneficial?

Exercise and movement is an important element in the treatment of lymphoedema it stimulates muscle pumps and increases lymph flow as well as improving muscular strength, cardiovascular function, psychological wellbeing and functional capacity1.

Exercise and movement may also assist in keeping your body weight at optimal levels, since weight gain can worsen pre-existing lymphoedema. This can be in the form of many different types of exercises such as walking, swimming, cycling, low impact aerobics, yoga, Pilates and gentle resistance exercise with weights. The most important factor is to use the limb as normally as possible, wear your compression during exercise and keep moving!

However, please ensure you exercise within your own limitations, build-up slowly to an exercise programme and avoid strenuous movement as this may cause the swelling to worsen. Speak to your healthcare professional about your exercise programme, before you start, to ensure that it is suitable, especially if doing resistance exercises.

What type of exercise and movement should I do?

Not all exercise and movement is suitable for everyone and everyone’s type of lymphoedema. Find something you enjoy and that feels good for you. Stick to the motto “start slowly, increase slowly!”. Give your body and your lymphatic system time to adjust to any new activity. If you were very active before you were diagnosed with lymphoedema, it may be harder for you to take a step backwards but be patient. Listen to your body, you know it best and will likely notice any negative changes. If you get symptoms such as pain, heaviness, tingling, ache or discomfort during or after exercise, you should stop that activity and speak to your healthcare professional. You can build up to any level of activity that you and your healthcare professional feel is appropriate for you, it might just take a little time to get there.

Speak to your healthcare professional about your type of lymphoedema as you may need to consider the type of exercise and movement that is most suitable. For example, ‘joint-friendly’ activities that put less strain on your joints may be advised for primary lymphoedema patients . In the case of cancer-related secondary lymphoedema where lymph nodes were removed, or any other type of surgery, medical advice is recommended. Here, the goal of exercise may be to relieve pain, ensure original movement is restored and scar tissue is addressed. This may be achieved through specific physiotherapy exercises to increase the range of motion and build up strength. 

How can I get the most from my movement and exercise programme?

Consider the following:

  • Use the limb as normally as possible
  • Position and support the limb
  • Always wear your compression garment. Note: wearing your compression garment when swimming will damage the material. If you want to wear your compression garment when swimming, it is important to wear an old compression garment.
  • Build up to the exercise programme slowly and start with low to moderate intensity exercise – “start slowly, increase slowly!”
  • Avoid strenuous movement such as heavy lifting and over-activity such as repetitive motion as this may cause an increase in swelling
  • Start with a low level of resistance and shorter periods of time – even if you think you’re going too slowly or taking it too easy, don’t be impatient!
  • Breathing exercises before and after exercise, as well as warming up and cooling down phases, should be incorporated to avoid exacerbation of swelling
  • Swimming is very beneficial, however avoid hot tubs, saunas, steam rooms or jacuzzis as these may increase swelling
  • Stop if your swollen limb feels tired or uncomfortable or aches
  • Gentle forms of exercise that encourage movement, stretching and breathing are beneficial
  • Rest and elevation of the limb at night is also important
  • Seek medical advice before you start a new exercise programme or if you notice any new symptoms such as pain, aching, heaviness or tingling during or after exercise
  • Tripudio is an excellent form of exercise that focuses on the fluid systems in the body including the lymphatic system. These fun classes consist of a warm-up and cool-down that is based on the principles of manual lymphatic drainage as well as gentle stretching, non-weight bearing strengthening and low impact aerobic dances to music. Find more information here http://www.tripudiomovement.co.uk/

Movement and exercise programme

Click here to find some suggested exercises. You may want to discuss these options with your healthcare professional first. They should be performed slowly and rhythmically.

Or in collaboration with your healthcare professional, why not put together your own exercise and movement programme and aim to do this a few times a week? Click here to print a page to build your own exercise and movement programme and share it with your healthcare professional.

1 Source: Lymphoedema Framework. Best Practice for the Management of Lymphoedema. International consensus. London: MEP Ltd, 200.