Weight Lifting May Help Lower Lymphedema Risk

Not only is weight training safe, but for women who have had lymph node removal due to breast cancer surgery, it also may reduce the risk of lymphedema by about a third.

Not only is weight training safe, but it also may reduce the risk of the painful arm swelling condition known as lymphedema by about a third in women with lymph node removal as part of surgical treatment for breast cancer, a new study suggests. Lymphedema can occur after surgery to remove lymph nodes near the cancer or from radiation damage to the lymph nodes, resulting in a backup of lymphatic fluid.

For too long, women with or at risk for lymphedema have been advised not to lift anything heavier than a grocery bag or their purse, said Kathryn Schmitz, PhD, lead investigator of the study presented at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium. But based on these latest results, breast cancer rehabilitation should be the standard of care, said Schmitz, who works at the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center.

The study looked at 154 women diagnosed with breast cancer within the previous five years who had at least two lymph nodes removed. None of the women had lymphedema. Half of the women participated in a year-long weight-lifting program. The other 77 survivors did not change their normal physical activity level.

The study showed that lifting weights does not increase the risk of developing lymphedema, but instead appears to decrease the risk by 36 percent: 11 percent of women in the weight-lifting group developed lymphedema compared with 17 percent in the control group.

The risk reduction was even greater in women who had five or more lymph nodes removed: 22 percent developed lymphedema in the control group compared with only 7 percent in the weight-lifting group, translating to a 70 percent reduction in lymphedema risk.

For 13 weeks, women in the weight-lifting group attended 90-minute, twice-weekly classes led by certified fitness professionals who taught them safe techniques using free weights and machines. If a woman had no change in arm symptoms—specifically swelling, pain, tingling or numbness—weight was increased slowly for each exercise. For the remaining nine months, participants were evaluated once a month for any change in symptoms.

Because the study was designed to specifically test the safety of weight lifting, more research will be needed to confirm whether lifting weights can prevent lymphedema. However, Schmitz and her colleagues published a study last year showing that a slowly progressive weight-lifting regimen reduced the number of flare-ups and symptoms in women who already have lymphedema.

Journal of the American Medical Association

The latest study will be published in the later this month, but is currently available online.

“The majority of breast cancer survivors do not have lymphedema; however, they alter the use of their arms and upper body activities out of fear of developing lymphedema. The findings from our trial should help clarify clinical advice to patients who have completed breast cancer treatment regarding the safety of resuming or beginning a weight lifting program,” the authors write.

Women with or at risk for lymphedema should talk to their doctors and seek out a certified fitness trainer to learn safe weight lifting techniques, said Schmitz. Plus, women with lymphedema should wear a well-fitting compression garment while exercising.

To find a certified trainer, use the American College of Sports Medicine’s ProFinder service at www.acsm.org. Or visit www.livestrong.org to see if the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s LIVESTRONG at the YMCA program is available in your city.