Weight training and lymphedema

By Tom Nordlie • Published: November 30th, 2009
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Women who undergo surgery for breast cancer often experience a painful complication called lymphedema [lymph-eh-DEE-muh].

Caused by fluid retention, it affects one or both arms. Symptoms include chronic swelling and impaired movement.

Patients are often advised to avoid lifting heavy objects. It’s commonly believed that muscular exertion can aggravate the condition.

But a study published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests this advice is wrong.

In the study, researchers recruited one-hundred-forty women who’d had breast cancer surgery and suffered lymphedema.

All participants were evaluated to see how much weight they could lift in the bench press and leg press.

Then half of them were put on a twice-a-week strength-training program that continued for a year.

Members of the control group were asked to continue with their usual exercise routines.

After one year, all participants were evaluated again on the bench press and leg press.

Not surprisingly, the women who’d been lifting weights showed greater strength increases than the control group.

But here’s a surprise… there was no difference in lymphedema symptoms between the groups.

In other words, lifting weights didn’t aggravate the lymphedema.

And considering the other benefits of strength training, such as increased bone mass and better circulation, it appears the regimen paid off.

Does this mean every breast-cancer survivor should start pumping iron?

No. The participants were carefully screened, trained and monitored to ensure their safety.

But this study does suggest that patients with lymphedema should talk to their doctors about the possibility of strength training.

It could be the start of a fitter future.