In the past, there were concerns that exercise may not be safe for those with lymphedema, but research has proven otherwise. We know that exercise makes muscles contract and pushes lymph through the lymph vessels, which can reduce swelling and discomfort. Exercise has other benefits too. It can help you to keep a full range of movement and make you feel better. Many people with lymphedema have shared that they feel less pain after exercising!
So, whether you are looking to get back to a favorite exercise or want to try something new – we’re here to help! First, consult with your medical provider to understand what’s safe for you to do. You may have to make a few modifications so you don’t aggravate your condition. You don’t want to overdo it! Also, no matter what type of exercise you do, make sure to wear your medical compression garment provided by a certified fitter. Compression sleeves, leggings, wraps and gloves will support you during the activity and also enhance the benefits for the increased circulation.
What exercises are best for someone with lymphedema?
Research findings identified three types of exercise that are most beneficial for those with lymphedema: decongestive/remedial, aerobic/cardio and resistance/strength.
Remedial exercises are incredibly helpful if you need to reduce swelling in your leg or arm. These active, repetitive, low impact exercises are similar to some Tai Chi and yoga moves. They promote lymphatic flow through muscle pump action and when coupled with deep diaphragmatic breathing promote return of lymphatic fluid back to the bloodstream.
Aerobic exercises, such as walking, jogging or swimming, engage large muscle groups and increase your heart rate. These exercises have numerous benefits, including weight control. They also help improve your cardiovascular fitness, circulation, strength and endurance. The key to safe aerobic exercise is gradually increasing duration and intensity – don’t push yourself too hard!
Resistive training involves repetitive lifting of weight – either your body weight or free weights/machines. Resistive training is safe, as long as your progression is slow and steady and you’re wearing a compression garment or short stretch bandage. These exercises build muscle and increase strength, while helping to control weight, lower blood pressure and fight osteoporosis. Resistance training works by causing microscopic tears to muscle cells, which quickly repair to help your muscles regenerate and grow stronger.
So, after getting cleared from your care team, put on your compression garment and grab your yoga mat, hit your favorite trail or head to the gym. Just remember to take it slow and enjoy yourself!