Exercises to prevent lymphedema? Weights okay?


Question from Marianne: I'm wondering what exercises can help prevent lymphedema? Can I lift weights at all on the affected arm, even just 5 lbs?
Answers - Kathryn Schmitz The answer would be yes. You can lift 5 pounds, you can lift 15 pounds, you can lift 100 pounds. The issue is not what you can lift; it's gradually increasing the capacity of the affected limb. You want to increase the amount that you lift gradually enough that the affected limbs have a chance to communicate through symptoms that you've done too much. So if you start by lifting 1 pound and you feel fine, then the next session you try to lift 1-1/2 pounds or 2 pounds and you feel fine after that, and the next time you increase again by 1/2 pound or 1 pound increments. As long as your limb is not changing in any negative way, there is no need for an upper limit on the amount that you can lift. But you do need to build your capacity gradually. I'll use an analogy here: after someone has a heart attack you certainly don't ask them to go out and run a marathon the next week. But there is ample evidence that individuals who have had heart attacks can and indeed do train and successfully complete marathons. They start in cardiac rehabilitation programs and gradually build up capacity of their damaged heart so that they are capable of running faster and longer than the average person. This would hold true for the lymph system as well.
Nicole Stout I feel very strongly that women who have been given the advice that they should "never lift more than 5 pounds for the rest of their life" should take that advice and throw it out the window. I truly believe that every exercise program is to be individualized. Every patient has the ability to do whatever activity they choose, whatever it is – rock climbing, dragon boat racing – as long as they choose an appropriate mechanism to train and monitor their limb.
Kathryn Schmitz I will add one thing: something women with lymphedema can't afford to do versus women not at risk can afford to do is to injure the arm due to overactivity. So women who have lymphedema do have to be smart that if they walk away from exercise for some period of time, they must back off and rebuild the limb. Muscle is a “use it or lose it” tissue. So if you stop training because you're taking care of your sick mother or you're busy at work, like any other woman wearing many hats and meeting other needs, you need to be aware of the breaks between exercise sessions and not overextend the limbs after a break. That is key.

On Wednesday, April 16, 2008, our Ask-the-Expert Online Conference was called Preventing and Treating Arm Lymphedema. Kathryn Schmitz, Ph.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S.M.,Nicole Stout, M.P.T. C.L.T.-L.A.N.A., and moderator Jennifer Sabol, M.D., F.A.S.C. answered your questions about ways to prevent and manage lymphedema.

The materials presented in these conferences do not necessarily reflect the views of Breastcancer.org. A qualified healthcare professional should be consulted before using any therapeutic product or regimen discussed. All readers should verify all information and data before employing any therapies described here.

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