Is it safe for patients with lymphedema to lift HEAVY weights during exercise?

By: Lindsay Davey, MScPT, MSc, CDT
May 8, 2013
Editors: Ryan Davey, PhD and Lindsay Davey, MScPT, MSc, CDT

It was once widely believed that patients with lymphedema should avoid resistance exercise for fear of aggravating the symptoms of their chronic swelling condition. This misconception has been widely debunked.  In fact, specially designed exercise therapy programs are actually beneficial for managing lymphedema as well as other side effects of cancer and cancer therapy.  Certainly exercise should not be avoided, but should we be encouraging strenuous resistance training with heavy weights?

Researchers in Australia recently investigated this question in a clinical trial of sixty-two women with breast cancer related lymphedema (Cormie P., Pumpa K., et al. Is it safe and efficacious for women with lymphedema secondary to breast cancer to lift heavy weights during exercise: a randomised controlled trial. J Cancer Surviv. 2013 Apr 20. epub). The study participants were assigned to either a high-load resistance exercise program (6-10 repetitions at 75-85% of their one repetition maximum weight), a low-load resistance program (15-20 repetitions at 55-65% of their one repetition maximum weight), or no resistance training (the control group) for a period of three months. The researchers then measured the extent of swelling, physical function, quality of life as well as the severity of other symptoms.

Extent of arm swelling and symptom severity did not differ between the different study groups, and lymphedema was not found to be exacerbated in any of the participants at any time throughout the trial.  As expected, muscle strength, endurance, physical function and quality of life was found to be improved in both the high-load and low-load exercise groups compared with the control group.

In other words, this research suggests that patients with breast cancer related lymphedema can safely perform upper body resistance training with heavy weights without increasing their risk of a swelling flare-up or exacerbation of their symptoms.

Properly designed and executed resistance training exercise programs are a safe and valuable tool for managing the symptoms of cancer and cancer treatment, including lymphedema.  Since many of the benefits of resistance training increase in a dose-dependent manner with exercise load (ie – the more effort you put into the exercise the better the results), this research is definitely good news for people with lymphedema.

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