Why exercising in water is beneficial for lymphoedema management

Exercising is one of the corner stones of care for lymphoedema management – click here to read an earlier BLOG to find out why. There are many different types of lymphoedema exercises and exercising in water (or aqua-therapy) is one option. It is a great way to exercise and a fun way to keep fit safely. 

So, what are the benefits of aqua-therapy and exercising in water for those with lymphoedema? Well, apart from encouraging the lymphatic system to drain more efficiently which may help reduce or maintain swelling levels, there are other possible benefits:

  • Reducing joint pain / joint strain
  • Support during exercise due to buoyancy of the water
  • Encouraging a better range of motion
  • Increasing the strength of the bones and/or of the affected limb(s)
  • Improving self-esteem and confidence
  • Improving overall general well-being

It’s important to recognise that not everyone will experience all of the above benefits but hopefully, these will motivate you to consider aqua therapy or exercising in water.

Exercises can be performed while standing or floating in the water, so being able to swim is not always necessary to participate in water-based activities. Just moving in the water (walking, splashing, kicking etc) can all help to improve lymphatic drainage. 

Water provides natural resistance, and when the limb is in the water it benefits from graduated pressure against the tissues, which encourages movement of blood and lymph which aids lymphatic drainage. Water pressure increases as the water depth increases and can, in fact, be greater than the pressure applied by a compression garment. The water pressure is often pleasant and unnoticeable - a win-win situation! As water provides the resistance needed for lymphatic drainage, the need to wear a compression garment in the water when exercising is reduced. However, compression garments can be worn, if preferred, and may enhance the lymphatic drainage further. 

Important! Chlorine within the pool and salt within the sea causes deterioration of the compression garment material therefore, only wear an old compression garment in the water. 

Note: for all other exercise and movement that is done out of the water, it is recommended that you wear your compression garment. 

Safety in the water is important and the following should be considered – especially if starting this type of exercise for the first time. 

  • Speak to your healthcare professional before commencing any new exercise programme as for some, aqua-therapy or exercising in water may not be suitable
  • Ensure there is a shallow end of the pool - deep enough to offer resistance but shallow enough to reach the bottom - and allow yourself enough room to exercise. Even strong swimmers can tire quickly, so it is best to exercise where you can stop and stand up when necessary
  • Wear a suitable flotation device if you (or your child) is not a proficient swimmer
  • Consider the water temperature, it should not be too hot or too cold. For those managing lymphoedema, some find cooler water preferable as it may mean they can stay in the water for longer. If the water is too warm, it may cause the swelling to worsen. An ideal temperature is thought to be around 29°C - 33°C. However, also consider how vigorous the activity is. For example, with a less vigorous activity, you may find it more comfortable to be at the higher range of the ideal temperature
  • Consider the cleanliness of the water or swimming pool to avoid the risk of infections
  • Ensure skin is in good condition before entering the water - no cuts, scratches, grazes etc, which may allow bacteria to enter the limb and may result in an infection e.g. cellulitis
  • Take care getting in and out of the pool - avoid any scrapes to the affected limb or body area that could cause inflammation
  • Dry your limbs carefully after swimming - especially between the digits, to prevent fungal infections
  • Moisturise the affected limb or body area well after swimming, to prevent the skin becoming dry 
  • Apply sunscreen regularly if swimming outside, re-apply often and take regular breaks from the water. Swim shoes should be used if swimming in the sea to protect the swollen foot from a scrape or cut
  • Put your compression garment back on as soon as possible after swimming. This is often not easy - damp skin and cramped changing rooms don’t help - but the positive effects of the exercise may be lost if you leave your compression garment off for too long

Aqua-therapy or exercising in water can really help improve lymphoedema and quality of life, as well as helping you keep fit, healthy and happy. It is not for everybody but something to consider, as it is a fun and effective lymphoedema exercise option to help you self-manage your long-term condition.

Aqua-therapy or exercising in water is increasingly popular and many local recreational centres have specific water aerobics programmes that you can join. So, why not see what is happening in your local area and share your stories with us at support@lymphconnect.co.uk?

Click here for a leaflet with some suggestions for exercising in water.  

Your support - register here to share your lymphoedema experiences, stories and top tips.