Lymphedema is a chronic condition that may occur as a result of cancer treatment that removes lymph nodes or disrupts them in some way. The lymph nodes are an integral part of the lymphatic system that helps filter and flush impurities from the body. Because lymphedema can cause painful and embarrassing swelling, patients often aren’t sure if they can exercise when living with this condition. They can. Here, we answer some of the common questions people have about exercise and lymphedema.
Won’t exercise just cause more swelling?
While it is possible that some exercise or a rapid return to exercise can cause swelling, patients with lymphedema can generally exercise safely when they pay attention to a few important principles. One is to wear compression garments when engaging in physical activities. In one study, women who engaged in a supervised weight-lifting program that gradually increased in intensity were 50% less likely to experience lymphedema flares while participating in the program.
Why should I wear compression when I exercise?
The purpose of wearing compression garments with lymphedema is to reduce swelling. Compression helps the muscles pump fluid from the face, trunk, and limbs. Without compression, circulation increases but the excess lymph that is also produced in the process is more likely to accumulate in certain areas.
How do I begin to exercise with Lymphedema?
Before beginning an exercise program, it is important to talk with your lymphedema specialist. Patients who receive medical clearance should begin exercising slowly and without weight. Active range of motion exercises can help improve strength and flexibility in the muscles. Exercise should be mild intensity, not rigorous. It should not cause pain. If pain occurs, the activity should be stopped and another can be tried. Pain may also indicate that the intensity with which exercise is happening needs to decrease. Ultimately, exercise should be productive, comfortable, and enjoyable.
What kind of exercises should I do with Lymphedema?
A good exercise program for lymphedema patients should include:
- Stretching. Good stretching before and after exercise can help prepare the joints that are tight and also increase range of motion.
- Strengthening exercises should be done to improve muscle performance both during and outside of exercise.
- Endurance exercises are important to improve cardiovascular efficiency and lung health.
It is advantageous to vary the exercise routine regularly. Patients may perform aerobic exercise on some days and strength and flexibility training on others.
What are some examples of aerobic exercise?
Keeping in mind that doctors recommend light, low-intensity physical exercise, patients often find it intimidating to begin adding more activity into their lives. While it is necessary to start and build slowly in terms of intensity and duration of exercise, patients can aim for a total of 23 to 30 minutes a day. Walking is an excellent form of exercise to start a new fitness routine. Walking outdoors can be very enjoyable, while walking on a treadmill may be more accessible for some. Patients may also swim, jog, or ride a bicycle. It is safe to use an elliptical trainer or to walk up and down stairs, as well.
Exercise can benefit people with lymphedema in many ways, provided it is done with care and mindfulness. While exercise can be helpful, it is not a cure or treatment for lymphedema. Clinical care may achieve more profound and longer-lasting improvements. To learn more, talk with a lymphedema specialist. Schedule a consultation with Dr. Patel at Keck Medicine of USC. Call 323.442.0416 for an appointment in our Glendale or Los Angeles office.