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Exercise and Secondary Lymphedema: Safety, Potential Benefits, and Research Issues


Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: March 2009 - Volume 41 - Issue 3 - p 483-489
doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31818b98fb
Clinical Sciences

Purpose: Participating in regular physical activity is encouraged after treatment for breast cancer, with exception of those who have subsequently developed lymphedema. The purpose of this project was to investigate, in a randomized controlled trial, the effect of participating in a supervised, mixed-type exercise program on lymphedema status among women with lymphedema after breast cancer.

Methods: Women younger than 76 yr, who completed breast cancer treatment at least 6 months prior and had subsequently developed unilateral, upper-limb lymphedema, were randomly allocated to an intervention (n = 16) or control (n = 16) group. The intervention group (IG) participated in 20 supervised, group, aerobic and resistance exercise sessions over 12 wk, whereas the control group (CG) was instructed to continue habitual activities. Lymphedema status was assessed by bioimpedance spectroscopy (impedance ratio between limbs) and perometry (volume difference between limbs), and independent t-tests (two-tailed P < 0.05) were used to determine statistical significance of observed changes.

Results: Mean ratio and volume measures at baseline were similar for the IG (1.13 ± 0.15 and 337 ± 307 mL, respectively) and the CG (1.13 ± 0.19 and 377 ± 416 mL, respectively), and no changes were observed over time for either group. Although no group change was observed between preintervention and 3-month follow-up for the IG (ratio and volume change = 0.02 ± 0.07 and 2 ± 71 mL, respectively), two women in this group no longer had evidence of lymphedema by study end. Average attendance was more than 70% of supervised sessions, there were no withdrawals, and several qualitative comments from participants support the program acceptability.

Conclusions: The results from this pilot study indicate that, at minimum, exercise does not exacerbate secondary lymphedema. Women with secondary lymphedema should be encouraged to be physically active, optimizing their physical and psychosocial recovery.

1School of Public Health, Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Queensland, AUSTRALIA; 2Department of Physiotherapy, Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital, Queensland, AUSTRALIA; and 3School of Psychiatry, Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital, University of Queensland, Queensland, AUSTRALIA

Address for correspondence: Sandi C. Hayes, M.D., School of Public Health, Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, Queensland University of Technology, Victoria Park Rd, Kelvin Grove, Brisbane, QLD 4059, Australia; E-mail:

Submitted for publication June 2008.

Accepted for publication August 2008.

©2009The American College of Sports Medicine