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A Reverse Prescription: Lift Weights to Improve Lymphedema

A Reverse Prescription: Lift Weights to Improve Lymphedema

Women who develop lymphedema after breast cancer surgery have long been advised to avoid heavy lifting and repetitive arm movements, often having to forego picking up their children, carrying groceries and generally avoiding sports and other activities that they would otherwise enjoy.

They might want to rethink that advice, based on a recent clinical trial that showed weight training is not only safe for most women with lymphedema, it can also improve their symptoms. The study involved 141 women who had no new lymphedema problems in the prior three months. During their twice weekly sessions, they wore custom-fitted compression garments as they performed 30 repetitions of seated row, chest press, lateral or front raises, bicep curls, and tricep pushdowns with one- to two-pound weights. They gradually added more weight if they had no increased symptoms. After one year, most women showed increased strength and reduced symptoms.

Weight training improves strength, encourages bone growth and provides many other health benefits. If you have lymphedema, consider the following before you start a weight-training program:

  • Ask you doctor if you are a candidate for weight lifting.
  • Consult with a fitness professional to learn how to use proper form to safely lift weights. The YMCA offers the LIVESTRONG program for cancer survivors, which uses the same protocol as the study. Ask your local gym if they have a trainer who is certified to help cancer survivors.
  • Wear a custom-fitted compression bandage while lifting weights.
  • Stop weight lifting and see a lymphedema specialist if your symptoms get worse.