How gentle exercise can help your lymphoedema

Lymphoedema often occurs after breast cancer surgery. See our simple exercises and tips to reduce symptoms.

Lymphoedema is a swelling in part of the body, usually caused by damage to the lymphatic system, and it can often occur after breast cancer surgery. We’ve put together some tips and exercises that can help, created with experts in the fields of lymphology and physiotherapy.


Physical activity promotes lymphatic drainage and can reduce secondary lymphoedema after breast cancer surgery. Once damaged, lymph nodes cannot be repaired. The good news is that with a bit of practice, the adjacent lymph nodes can learn to do the work of their injured counterparts. Exercise helps this process, but it is important not to overdo it: increasing exercise gradually over time is key, particularly when it comes to lifting on the operated side. Here are some tips and simple exercises that can help.


Things that can help


Swimming and aqua-gymnastics: The pressure of the water and the contractions of the muscles press on the tissue, stimulating the transport of the lymphatic fluid.
If you already have lymphoedema or problems with your veins, make sure that the water temperature is not higher than 30° Celsius, as heat increases the lymphatic flow.


Caution: You should avoid swimming if you are still having radiotherapy. The radiation usually causes the skin to redden and develop tiny cracks. This increases the risk of infection – especially from germs in the locker room or in fresh water.


Nordic walking, horse riding or moderate strength training in the gym: Lymphatic vessels work in a similar way to our heart: they pump the lymph through the body. The forward and backwards arm movement during Nordic walking or horse riding cause the lymph nodes to relax and contract, stimulating the flow of the lymph fluid. Strength training that activates muscle contraction can also help move lymph back to the veins and into the circulation.


Yoga and Pilates: The lymph nodes and the movement of lymphatic fluid are stimulated both by the flexing and relaxation of muscles and by the deep breathing, which is part of yoga and Pilates practice.


The following exercise can help train your breathing:



Things to avoid:



Important: Before you start any form of exercise after breast cancer surgery, talk to your doctor or physiotherapist to find out what exercise is best for you and how soon after surgery you should start. Always wear your compression garment or bandages during the exercises if you already have lymphoedema. These will help you get the best results as they are designed to encourage lymph fluid drainage.


Gentle exercises for arms and shoulders


These five simple exercises have been recommended by breast cancer care specialists. They can be repeated 5–10 times.


1. Shoulder Rolls


2. The Butterfly


3. Picture Frames


4. The Elephant


5. The “O”


Don’t forget to take a rest – plan breaks during your exercises. This way, your muscles and lymph nodes will have time to recover and you will not feel any strain.


Breast Cancer Care: Treatments for lymphoedema
Breast Cancer Care: Living with lymphoedema, downloadable pdf
Macmillan Cancer Care: Lymphoedema information and support