Exercising and keeping active to reduce lymphoedema

Having lymphoedema doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t or won’t be able to exercise any more.

In fact, keeping physically active has many benefits. It stimulates the flow of lymph fluid and reduces swelling. It also helps keep your joints flexible, strengthens your muscles and improves your posture.

It’s important to start slowly and gradually build up what you do. You may have to avoid activities that put stress on the affected limb, and it’s important to break up activity by resting with your limb supported.

There are stretches you can do to reduce arm or leg swelling. Your specialist will tell you about any exercises you need to do. Always wear your compression garment during exercise and do deep breathing, which improves circulation. The right amount of exercise should feel gentle and comfortable. If you do too much, this can increase swelling.

You can keep physically active by doing things around the house or garden. You could also try an activity you enjoy. Swimming, walking and yoga are good options. Talk to your lymphoedema specialist before starting any exercise programme.

Managing lymphoedema through exercise

You can help to manage and reduce lymphoedema by exercising and keeping physically active. Exercising helps you feel better and maintain a healthy weight. It also reduces your risk of developing other health problems and is a good way to reduce stress and anxiety.

Exercise can improve lymphoedema because it:

  • increases the flow of lymph fluid by working your muscles and reducing swelling
  • encourages fluid to move away from the swollen area
  • strengthens your muscles
  • keeps your joints flexible, maintaining and improving your range of movement
  • improves your posture.

Gentle stretching exercises can help to reduce and control lymphoedema. Your lymphoedema specialist will explain the best exercises for you, and how many times a day you should do them. We describe some simple exercises to reduce arm and leg swelling at the end of this section.

If you have been fitted with a compression garment you need to wear it when you exercise. Try to include deep breathing in any daily exercise routines to improve your circulation. Do your exercises gradually and regularly, as advised by your specialist, so that you build up a regular routine.

Exercises for lymphoedema should be gentle and feel comfortable. The right amount of exercise or activity will vary from person to person. Swelling may increase if you exercise too quickly, for long periods or too often. If you’re doing too much, your skin will become red, sticky and hot.

Keeping physically active

Carry on using your affected limb for all your normal activities. Keeping yourself physically active by doing things around the house or in the garden is also another form of exercise.

Start gently with most activities and gradually increase. You may have to avoid some activities that place stress on the affected limb, for example, moving heavy pieces of furniture or mowing the lawn with your affected arm.

Resting

It’s also important to break up long, busy days with times of rest with your limb supported. If your arm is affected, be careful not to carry anything too heavy. If you need to go shopping, use a trolley. If you can, do your shopping online and have it delivered to avoid carrying heavy bags.

‘On days when I'm mostly sedentary, I get up and walk around at work or do something active like gardening when I get home.’ Anne

Anne


Other types of exercise

It is usually fine to continue exercising if you did before as long as you get back into it gradually. There are some types of exercise that you will need to take more care with. Always ask your lymphoedema specialist for advice and talk to your doctor before you start. If you use gym equipment, talk to an instructor to avoid using heavy weights.

Swimming, walking, stretching exercises and yoga are all good types of exercise. Swimming is particularly helpful if you have problems with your joints, as it works the muscles without putting strain on the joints.

It’s important to talk to your lymphoedema specialist and your doctor before starting an exercise programme. If any type of exercise makes you breathless or uncomfortable, or seems to make the swelling worse, stop doing it straight away and ask your specialist for advice.

We have more information about physical activity during and after cancer treatment.

‘Exercise can really help. But I did too much, which ended up causing even more swelling. I had to find the right level of intensity.’ Barny

Barny


Exercises to reduce arm swelling

Here are some simple exercises to reduce arm swelling:

  • Sit comfortably and support your arm at shoulder height on pillows. Make a fist and then stretch your fingers out straight. Repeat this exercise as many times as feels comfortable.
  • Try bending and straightening your arm at the elbow, with your arm supported.
  • Check that your shoulders are level by looking at your posture in the mirror. Practise shrugging and then dropping your shoulders slowly to the count of five.
  • Slowly circle your shoulders in one direction, then the other.


Exercises to reduce leg swelling

Do the following exercises at regular intervals while you’re resting:

  • Sit with your leg up, making sure it’s supported behind the knee.
  • Move your foot at the ankle to pull your toes up and then point them down.
  • Bend and straighten your leg at the knee.

Your lymphoedema specialist can tell you what other exercises might help. What’s right for you will depend on your level of fitness.