Exercising and keeping active to reduce lymphoedema

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

If you have not done exercise for a while, start slowly and gradually build up what you do. There may be some types of exercise that you will need to take more care with. For example, if there is a high risk of muscle strain or skin injury. Always wear your compression garment during exercise. Try to include deep breathing in any daily exercise routines, as this improves your circulation.

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. 

There are stretches you can do to reduce arm or leg swelling. Your specialist will tell you about these.

Exercise and keeping active

Exercise is an important part of lymphoedema treatment. It can improve lymphoedema because it:

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

Exercise can also help you maintain a healthy weight. This can help to reduce lymphoedema swelling. It can also help you feel better in yourself, and reduce stress and anxiety.

The exercise you do will depend on your level of fitness. It could be gentle stretches, or something that you enjoy or have enjoyed before. The most important thing is to do it regularly. If you have not done exercise for a while, it is best to start slowly and build up.

Gentle stretching exercises can help reduce and control lymphoedema. Your lymphoedema specialist will explain the best exercises for you. They will also tell you 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 (see below). Talk to your lymphoedema specialist about other exercises you are thinking of doing.

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.

The right amount of exercise or activity will vary from person to person. 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).

I had to find the right level of exercise intensity. I’ve taken up swimming which I’ve found very beneficial.

Barny


Keeping physically active

Keep using your affected limb for all your normal activities. Doing things around the house or in the garden is another form of exercise.

Start gently with most activities and slowly increase the intensity. Depending on the level of swelling you have, you may find some activities difficult until the swelling improves. Take care with anything that might cause muscle strain.


Other types of exercise and lymphoedema

It is usually fine to continue exercising if you did before, as long as you start slowly and build up. In the past, health professionals were worried that exercise might make lymphoedema worse. But studies, mostly looking at people with arm lymphoedema, are showing that this is not true. There may be some types of exercise that you will need to take more care with. For example, 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.

Swimming, walking, doing stretching exercises and yoga are all good types of exercise. Swimming is helpful if you have problems with your joints, as it does not put strain on them.

If you become more breathless or uncomfortable than expected during exercise, or if swelling gets worse, stop straight away. You should ask your specialist for advice.

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


Exercises to reduce arm swelling

Here are some simple exercises to reduce arm swelling:

  • 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.
  • With your arm supported, try bending and straightening it at the elbow.
  • 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.

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


Exercises to reduce leg swelling

Do the following exercises regularly while you are resting:

  • sit with your leg up and support 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 other exercises that might help. What is right for you will depend on your level of fitness.