Exercise and Lymphedema

Tips for Incorporating Exercise into Your Life with Lymphedema

By Jen Boyce OT, CLT; Lynn Fass RN, CLT

Muscle contraction stimulates lymphatic flow and movement through your body, therefore exercise is highly useful in your daily lymphedema management program. One of the keys to living well with lymphedema is to find which combination of exercise and compression garment works best for you. The challenge is that this is different for each person. The word exercise can be overwhelming for some people; try to focus on the positive results of moving your body.

We recommend that you work with a Certified Lymphedema Therapist (CLT) for ongoing lymphedema care and to develop an exercise program. You and your therapist will discuss what kind of exercise you have done in the past, how long it has been since you had a regular exercise program, and what physical limitations you have.  Your exercise program will most likely begin with self-administered Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD) to stimulate your lymphatic system. The deep breathing exercises (part of MLD) enhance pumping of the thoracic duct, one of the large lymph vessels which drains the abdominal and thoracic area. The lymph ultimately returns to the bloodstream.

You will begin your exercise program gently, increasing the intensity and frequency slowly as you become accustomed to the movements.  A journal or calendar will help you keep track of your exercises and physical responses. You will learn to pay attention to any symptoms of lymphedema that occur after your exercise such as increased swelling, tightness, heaviness, clumsiness, or achiness. If symptoms appear, you’ll want to consider decreasing the duration and/or intensity of your exercises. Be aware that exercising to the point of fatigue may exacerbate lymphedema. It is also wise to record in your journal other factors that may impact your lymphedema such as extreme temperatures, a change in compression garments, stress, diet, changes in sleep, illness, hydration, medication, standing or sitting for long periods, repetitive motion, or change in bowel regime. Over time you’ll notice patterns and can adjust your daily routine.

Besides a strengthening program, we encourage you to find some type of movement or activity that works for you and brings you joy. Some ideas are walking, biking, yoga, tai chi, Healthy Steps (an exercise system especially designed for promoting lymphatic flow, and with music), kayaking, and swimming. The nice thing about water exercise is that you don’t have to wear a compression garment because you get the natural compression provided by the water and gentle activity out of gravity.

We know from experience that moving your body is one of the best things that you can do to keep your lymphedema in check, your brain sane, and your body functional.  It’s a gift that truly keeps giving.