With lymphedema, it’s not just important to keep up with your regular daily activities and continue to use your affected limb, but you’ll also want to exercise regularly. The best way to approach any exercise plan is to start gently and gradually increase the intensity. Excessive swelling may make some exercises too challenging, so you may need to wait until the swelling has gone down. And you’ll want to be careful to avoid pulling any muscles as this can further exacerbate swelling. Additionally, take care with any exercise where the skin can be broken—like rowing, for example—as this can elevate the risk of infection.
Exercise can be beneficial for those with lymphedema, as it increases the flow of lymph fluid and reduces swelling. Gentle stretching and walking are great options, and for some people, rebounding may be helpful. Rebounding, though, is a vigorous form of exercise and it may not be ideal for everyone—particularly older individuals. Before beginning any kind of exercise regimen, contact your healthcare provider who can advise you on the best way to proceed.
First, ask your healthcare provider for recommendations on how to get started. If you have never exercised, or if it’s been a while, you will want to start slowly and gradually ramp up. You can also try different kinds of exercise to see what works for you. Many people enjoy walking and swimming, and find the stretching, strengthening, and breathing of gentle yoga classes to be beneficial.
Because everyone responds differently to exercise, you’ll want to take note of any swelling and watch to see if it increases after you exercise. If you feel uncomfortable during exercise, or notice any breathing difficulties, you should stop exercising immediately and contact your healthcare provider. In case of emergency, call 911.
To help with the accumulation of lymph fluid in the legs, consider hip flexion and hip abduction exercises, knee extensions, ankle pumps, ankle circles, and toe scrunches. Based on your level of fitness and how your body responds to exercise, your lymphedema specialist can recommend specific exercises that may be beneficial.
Unlike blood, lymph fluid does not circulate on its own. But diaphragmatic breathing facilitates the flow of lymph fluid. This form of exercise helps boost lymph circulation and can improve the overall vitality of the lymphatic system.
Deeply inhale through your nose. By keeping your chest still and concentrating on filling your abdomen with air, you will activate diaphragmatic breathing. Then, as you exhale through your mouth, use your stomach like a bellows to push the air out. You can speak to your healthcare provider for more information on diaphragmatic breathing.
It is important that you do so, as your compression garment will act against the muscles, making the exercises more effective in moving the lymphatic fluid. Additionally, the pressure from the garment will help keep the lymph from collecting in areas that are already swollen. Compression garments are not necessary if you are swimming and the affected limb is submerged in water, as the pressure of the water will provide compression on the limb.