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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Morgan

Lymphedema and Exercise

Lymphedema, a common side effect of cancer treatment, can occur as a result of surgery, lymph node dissection, and radiation. Characterized by localized fluid retention and tissue swelling, it commonly affects an arm or leg, but can also occur in other areas of the body.

The good news is that research has proven exercise to be beneficial for the treatment, prevention and reduction of incidence of lymphedema. The Physical Activity and Lymphedema Trial involved 295 breast cancer survivors and verified benefits that have long been observed by exercise therapists who work with breast cancer survivors.

If you have lymphedema or at risk of developing it, consider exercise as an essential part of your regular routine. The benefits are not only to lymphedema but have a positive impact on your overall health and healing. Regular and appropriate exercise:

  1. Reduces the symptoms of lymphedema.

  2. Increases blood flow or lymphatic fluid at a rate of 24 beats per minute.

  3. Creates a pumping mechanism that assists in lymph movement and improves protein resorption.

  4. Reduces the relative effect of common daily stresses on the arm.

  5. Increases muscle mass and strength, making daily chores and other activities easier.

  6. Decreases obesity, which may contribute to increased energy and better sense of self.

  7. Minimizes deconditioning, a concern after cancer diagnosis and during cancer treatment.

  8. Reduces the chance of injury due to lack of use, avoiding a period of complete inactivity while the injury heals.

  9. Enhances the immune system which assists with healing and fighting off illness.

  10. Improves mood, which can contribute to better relationships and to improved quality of life.


Exercise guidelines are essential for people with lymphedema. Before starting an exercise program, consult with a trained exercise therapist with experience in lymphedema and exercise. They will assess the severity of the condition and provide an appropriate exercise routine and careful monitoring, including regular girth measurements.

A successful exercise routine should include repetitive pumping mechanisms with hand and or foot movements and will aim to increase the range of movement to help reduce scar tissue which impedes lymph flow. Other important tips include:

• Start slowly and progress slowly. • Warm-up and cool-down for a minimum of five minutes to increase or decrease the heart rate and blood flow (don’t skip these important steps!) • Wear a properly fitted compression garment while exercising. • Avoid training in high heat or altitude, consider both the room and outdoor temperatures.

Wide Range of Beneficial Activities

A wide range of activities can help you feel better and enhance your healing. Consider swimming, weight training, cycling, walking, or hiking. If you have finished your treatment and are already exercising regularly, you might want to try dragon boat racing such as Abreast in a Boat.

Don’t let another week go by – find a healthy and safe way to be physically active and greatly improve your quality of life!

By Joanne Morgan

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