Managing lymphoedema with physical activity

Physical activity is important for managing lymphoedema. It helps move lymph fluid from the swollen area and can help you maintain a healthy weight. Learn more about it.

Lymphoedema and physical activity

Physical activity is important for managing lymphoedema. Physical activity:

  • works your muscles, which increases the flow of lymph fluid through the lymphatic system and helps move it away from the swollen area
  • can help you maintain a healthy weight, which can reduce lymphoedema swelling
  • keeps your joints flexible, maintaining and improving your range of movement.

Physical activity can also help you feel better about yourself and reduce stress and anxiety.

You can use your affected limb for all your normal activities, but take care with anything that might cause muscle strain. You may have to wait until the swelling improves to do some activities.

Keeping active

If you have not been active for a while, it is best to start slowly and build up. The most important thing is to do it regularly.

It is important to remember that swelling may increase if you exercise too quickly, too often or for long periods of time. Your skin may become red, sticky and hot. If this happens, you should stop and rest. You should not exercise if you have a skin infection (cellulitis). You should ask your lymphoedema specialist for advice if:

  • you become more breathless
  • you become more uncomfortable than expected during exercise
  • swelling gets worse – if this happens, stop straight away.

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

Your lymphoedema specialist will explain some gentle exercises.

Exercises to reduce arm swelling

Here are some simple exercises to reduce arm swelling:

  1. Sit comfortably and support your arm at shoulder height – you could use pillows. Make a fist and then stretch your fingers out straight. Repeat this exercise as many times as feels comfortable.
  2. With your arm supported by a cushion or pillow, try bending and straightening it at the elbow.
  3. Check that your shoulders are level by looking at your posture in the mirror. Practise shrugging, and then dropping your shoulders slowly. Count to 5 as you do this.
  4. Slowly circle your shoulders together forwards, then backwards.

Exercises to reduce leg swelling

Do the following exercises regularly while you are sitting down:

  1. Put your leg in front of you, and rest it on something so it is supported behind the knee.
  2. Move your foot at the ankle to pull your toes up and then point them down.
  3. Slowly bend and straighten your leg at the knee.

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

Lymphoedema Network Northern Ireland produces 2 leaflets that you may find useful. They explain how to do exercises for arms and legs.

UK NHS Lymphoedema Network Wales has created a number of videos that explain different levels of exercises you can do.

Types of physical activity

The type of activity you do could be gentle stretches, or something that you enjoyed before.

There may be some types of physical activity that you will need to take more care with. You may need to be careful if there is a high risk of muscle strain or skin injury. Always ask your lymphoedema specialist for advice and talk to your doctor before you start.

Some good types of exercise include:

  • swimming
  • walking
  • stretching exercises
  • yoga

Swimming and aqua aerobics are helpful if you have problems with your joints, as they put less strain on them.

Compression garments and physical activity

If you have a compression garment, you usually need to wear it when you exercise. Speak to your specialist if you find this uncomfortable. Try to include deep breathing in any daily exercise routines, as this improves your circulation.

Positioning a limb with lymphoedema

There are ways you can position your limb when resting that can prevent fluid from building up.

Careful positioning when resting or sitting can reduce swelling for lymphoedema in an arm, leg, or the head and neck.

If you have arm swelling

  • Place a cushion on the arm of a chair. Rest your arm on this when sitting down – this will fully support it and raise it slightly.
  • Try not to lift your arm above shoulder height for too long – it may reduce blood flow to your arm and make you more uncomfortable.
  • Try not to leave your arm in the same position for too long – it is more helpful to move muscles regularly.

If you have leg swelling

  • Sit with your legs uncrossed.
  • Raise your legs as often as you can when you are sitting. Lie with your legs up on a sofa, or fully supported on a footstool.
  • Try not to keep your leg in the same position for too long.
  • Get up and move about at least once an hour, if you can.
  • Avoid standing still for long periods of time.

If you have to stand for a long time, these exercises can help stop fluid building up:

  1. Raise yourself up onto your toes and lower back down again. This helps tense and relax your calf muscles.
  2. Shift your weight from one leg to the other. Transfer your weight from your heels to your toes, as if you are walking on the spot.
  3. Try rocking back on your heels and forward onto your toes a few times.

If you have head and neck swelling

It can help lymph fluid to drain if you slightly raise your head and upper body while you sleep. You can do this by:

  • raising the head of the bed slightly – for example by
  • using blocks under the legs of the bed using a foam wedge under your upper body and head
  • using pillows.

Try to keep your head in line with your body, so your neck is not bent too far forward. This will help fluid to drain.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our lymphoedema information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at

    Skin care for people with lymphoedema. British Lymphology Society 2022.

    O’Donnell TF et al. Systematic review of guidelines for lymphedema and the need for contemporary intersocietal guidelines for the management of lymphedema. Journal of Vascular Surgery: Venous and Lymphatic Disorders 2020.

    The Lymphoedema Support Network

    The British Lymphology Society

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We want our information to be as clear as possible. To do this, we try to:

  • use plain English
  • explain medical words
  • use short sentences
  • use illustrations to explain text
  • structure the information clearly
  • make sure important points are clear.

We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected.

You can read more about how we produce our information here.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 March 2023
Next review: 01 March 2026
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.