Can Strength Training Prevent Lymphedema?

We had a great group of women at the SHARE program "Getting Fit after Breast or Ovarian Cancer" on June 27.   The fifteen participants were very energetic in exploring their fitness options and sharing their own experience.  We all got a lot of good tips and resources! One woman asked an excellent question about strength training and the risk of lymphedema. Traditionally, women have been advised against lifting weights and performing repetitive arm movements in order to prevent lymphedema.  According to a recent study, however, strength training exercises can actually reduce the risk of developing this unwelcome complication, improve symptoms if they develop, and prepare women to return to their normal day-to-day activities.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in August 2009, found that weight lifters had fewer problems because they had better muscle tone and endurance.  A program of progressive weight lifting exercises gradually increased the capacity of the affected arm in a controlled setting, making it less likely that ordinary activities that require upper body strength would overstress the impaired lymph system.

Safety Guidelines for Strength Training:

1)    Always check with your doctor before becoming much more physically active than you are now. 2)    If you have lymphedema, talk with your doctor to make sure that your lymphedema is stable (i.e. you haven’t had new problems in the last three months). 3)    Wear a custom-fitted compression sleeve while exercising. 4)    Consult with a certified exercise professional regarding proper weight lifting techniques. 5)    Start with light weights and progress gradually. Stop if you have pain, increased swelling or discomfort. 6)    Do not increase the weight and number of repetitions at the same time. 7)    Be consistent in your workouts to allow the lymph system to adapt.  If you take a break from strength training, start back with lighter weights to give the lymph system time to re-adjust. 8)    In the event of a flare up, have an evaluation by a lymphedema specialist and wait until the flare subsides before resuming lifting.

Of course, this information should not take the place of guidance from your own physician or other medical professional.

Vacation time!!  We're taking off the whole month of July and will be back in touch in August.