Exercising and keeping active to reduce lymphoedema

Having lymphoedema does not mean that you shouldn’t, or won’t be able to exercise anymore.

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.

Keeping physically active doesn’t necessarily mean exercising intensely. It can just be doing some gardening or things around the house. It’s important to start slowly and gradually build up what you do. You may have to avoid activities that place stress on the affected limb.

Gentle stretching can help. There are specific 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 try to do deep breathing, which improves circulation. The right amount of exercise should feel gentle and comfortable. If you do too much, too quickly, this can increase swelling.

You could try an activity that you enjoy and are more likely to continue. Swimming, walking, stretching and yoga are good options. Make sure you talk to your lymphoedema specialist and doctor before starting any exercise programme.

Improving lymphoedema through exercise

Exercising and keeping physically active is an important way to manage and reduce lymphoedema. It helps you feel better and maintain a healthy weight, and it reduces your risk of developing other health problems. It’s also a good way to reduce stress and anxiety.

Exercise can improve lymphoedema because it:

  • increases the flow of lymph by working your muscles and reducing swelling
  • strengthens your muscles
  • keeps your joints flexible, maintaining and improving your range of movement
  • improves your posture.

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 a helpful form of exercise.

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


It’s also important to break up long and busy days with times of resting 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 or, if you can, do your shopping online and have it delivered to avoid carrying heavy bags.

Specific exercises for lymphoedema

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.

Always wear your compression garment 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.

Too much exercise too quickly may increase swelling. If you’re doing too much, your skin will become red, sticky and hot. Long periods of exercise and activity can also increase the swelling.

Other types of exercise and lymphoedema

Having lymphoedema doesn’t mean that exercise can’t be a part of your life. Exercise has many benefits and we’ve mentioned some of these already. There are some types of exercise that you will need to take more care with, so always ask your lymphoedema specialist for advice and talk to your doctor before you start.

Get involved in the type of exercise you enjoy and are more likely to stick with, and build it up gradually. Swimming, walking, stretching exercises and yoga are all good options. 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 and ask your specialist for advice.

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.
  • Also with your arm supported, try bending and straightening your arm at the elbow.
  • Watch your posture, and check in a mirror that your shoulders are level.
  • Practice 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

For leg swelling , try sitting with your leg up, making sure it’s supported behind the knee. Do the following exercises at regular intervals while you’re resting:

  • Move your foot at the ankle to pull your toes up and then point them down.
  • Bend and straighten your leg at the knee.

There are many other exercises that might help – your lymphoedema specialist can advise you. What’s right for you will depend on your level of fitness.