I have always been impressed by those who have no problem in finding the time and energy to go to the gym several times a week or train 20 hours a week for an Iron Man-race. That is just not my thing. I really like spending time on the couch reading a great novel or simply go for a walk in the forest. When I finally exercise, I really enjoy it of course; it feels great both during and after. But if I have the choice between reading a book or going for a swim on a Monday evening after work, I would always prefer the book.
However, that attitude is not great when you have lymphedema. The first 4-5 years I had lymphedema I exercised once in a while when I could pull myself together. My lymphedema bettered for a few days after exercising, but because I got lazy/tired with all the other things going on in my life I thought there was only one easy way to get more time to relax; deducting exercise from the equation. And then my lymphedema quickly got back to its usual bad level – and the erysipelas infections showed their ugly face once again.
It is acknowledged that sports/exercise is (really!) good for you especially when you have lymphedema. It can better your lymphedema dramatically. In my case we are talking around 3 cm in difference in my measurements around my legs, even around a relatively thin area as the ankles.
With that being said, there are of course things you need to be aware of when doing sports and at the same time having lymphedema.
I have written all about my experiences with different kinds of exercise and sports down below. It has taken me a lot of years to reach the level of knowledge I now have about my lymphedema, and hopefully the information below can help you find your own way in this jungle that is lymphedema and exercise.
- Overall “rules” in relation to exercise and lymphedema
- My weekly exercise schedule – and my best advice
- Astanga yoga
- Other kinds of exercise
Overall “rules” in relation to exercise and lymphedema
As written above there are some things that you have to bear in mind in relation to sports and exercise when you have lymphedema.
I have tried to list all the general known things and my overall experience down below, so you can easily get an overview of the whole “sporting game”.
- What does your lymphedema tell you? You have to listen to your body and be aware of how your lymphedema is reacting when you do the different kinds of sports. If your lymphedema for example gets worse when you do pilates, well, then you should not do pilates.
- It has to feel good when you exercise. If it hurts in your limbs with lymphedema while you do the specific exercise, you should stop. With that being said, it is not a problem being able to feel your muscles working. But if it is “bad pain”, then there is no gain, so to speak.
- Avoid sports where you get bruises and wounds on the limb with lymphedema. I have always wanted to learn the fighting art of krav maga, but since it will result in me getting kicked and hit on my legs, I simply cannot do this kind of sport. This could result in my legs not being able to heal because of the lymphedema and that can result in dangerous infections.
- This is my own statement, but I believe there is such a thing as too much exercise when you have lymphedema. At times when I have wanted to better a bad situation with my lymphedema and I have exercised in extreme manners, the lymphedema has worsened. I therefore do not believe it is healthy or good for you if you take it to extremes in relation to frequency of sports.
My weekly exercise schedule – and my best advice
I have now just come to the point where I have realized that if I want to have a good life and not suffer too much because of my lymphedema, I have to exercise several times a week. But it does not have to be extremely time consuming or hard; when having lymphedema very little exercise can sometimes have an enormous effect!
I have tried doing different kinds of exercise and in different intensities. Down below you can see my weekly exercise schedule as for now. When I stick to this schedule, my legs are doing absolutely amazing! But with that being said, you do not have to do THAT much. I just realized that I like to combine some of the more mentally calming forms of exercise with something more “sporty”, like swimming. That is why I mix several types of exercise.
If I was to give any kind of lymphedema patient just one advice in relation to type and intensity of exercise, it would be this: If you do not have the time or energy to do a whole lot, just stick to doing 15 minutes of yoga 3-4 evenings a week. This alone does wonders with my own lymphedema and could probably do it to yours as well. Did you know that in some countries part of the treatment for lymphedema actually is yoga? You can read more about that here if you are interested.
In Denmark it has become a bit “hyped” to do yoga. But I would argue that this is not without a good reason. In my experience yoga can benefit both your mental and physical health in ways you did not expect.
However, I am a bit impatient and I need a more “sporty” challenge than what you properly could classify as classical yoga (the more slow version and not as dynamic as some of the further developed versions). I therefore do not spend hours and hours on doing the classical yoga. I do astanga yoga instead (which you can read more about below).
Still I do swear to classical yoga exercises in small doses. And I discovered that doing just 15 minutes of yoga exercises every evening had an amazingly healing effect on my lymphedema and my legs (and my head as well actually).
If you should do only one kind of exercise, I would recommend you doing just 15 minutes of yoga every night. No matter how tired and lazy I am, I can always “cope” with the idea of just 15 minutes. And it works wonders for me.
In case you have never done yoga before, I would advise you to go to a yoga centre to learn the basic techniques. This way you are sure of doing the exercises right. When you have gotten a better understanding of yoga, you can be your own trainer and do it at home.
I need challenges – and I like pressuring myself a lot when doing sports. Even though I have my limits these days because of the lymphedema. The classical yoga classes were not for me, at least not if I have to do them for a whole hour or more. It all seems a bit slow for me and not “thrilling” enough. But then I discovered astanga yoga.
Astanga yoga is yoga like every other kind of this type of exercise. But astanga is very appealing to me because it challenges me on a whole other level – and it is somehow not as “slow” for me as the more classical yoga. Astanga is – to me – a bit more dynamic than the classical yoga. And harder. I believe that the astanga works well for my lymphedema because it is so dynamic and because the breathing is even more incorporated in the exercises somehow.
Every yoga position in astanga is connected to breath-syncronized movements and it is completely determined when you are to breath in and breath out during the different exercises. The different poses are done in a specific order, so-called series, and there are 3 different series. There are hundreds of poses, so you will always have something new to learn – especially because some of the poses can be very challenging, so it can take time master them perfectly.
I try doing an hour of astanga yoga twice a week. That supplements the 15 minute classical yoga I do every evening really well. And I never get tired of the astanga practice because it challenges me the way it does. I especially like doing it in the late afternoon with Karunesh-music playing in the background – or in a small astanga yoga studio.
My advice is pretty clear in relation to swimming: If you are capable of swimming, do it!
When I told my first physiotherapist that I would like to continue swimming after having been diagnosed with lymphedema, she encouraged it a lot. She had a theory that the pressure in the water would do my legs good. And she was right. The level of my lymphedema is considerably lower when I go swimming regularly.
I myself do two different kinds of swimming; open water and in an indoor pool. With the weather in Denmark being as it is, I can only do open water swimming from June until August. Open water swimming has the best effect on my legs and it is quite extraordinary some times. Even swimming just 700-800 metres in open water can be seen on my measurements afterwards.
I swim indoors once a week. I used to swim 12-15 hours a week when I was teenager, but I gave up taking swimming to a higher level because I wanted to focus on my education. Since I used to swim on a relatively high level, I do not just swim a couple of lanes of breaststroke when I jump into the pool. However, that does not have to be the case for swimming to have an effect. I believe that every form of swimming will do you good when you have lymphedema.
My best advice in relation to swimming and lymphedema would be to
- swim in the manner you know how to. It does not have to be more than breaststroke for a few lanes.
- try to challenge yourself and your body (and your lymphedema). If you only know how to swim breaststroke, try learning backstroke or crawl. In the long run your legs will get more challenged by swimming backstroke or crawl and it can possibly do a lot of good in relation to your lymphedema.
- swim using programmes if you easily get bored by just swimming back and forth in the same rhythm all the time. By swimming based on a program you will challenge yourself more, get your pulse up and have the opportunity to get into really great shape.
I always use programmes when I swim; this to challenge myself and to get an even greater exercise out of it (and I don’t even think I would know how to swim not using a program since I swam this way for 10 years). I have put up some of my programs down below; you can take a look and see if they can inspire you to making your own programs that suit the level you are on.
My knees have always caused me trouble when I try to get into a steady running routine that involves running several kilometres. My knees have been a problem ever since my mid teen-years and every time I try to take up running, it results in a lot of pain in my knees and me not running any more for a long period of time. For that reason I thought that there was not sense in going for a run when I can only run for 1-1,5 kilometres and then have to stop.
But as it turns out, that is not the case. I have found out that even just going for a 6-7 minute run can have a great effect on my lymphedema; so great, that I wake up the next day with my ankles showing (normally I would not be able see them because that area generally is very swollen).
Therefore, I try getting out on just a 10 minute run once every week. And if I am having a really bad day in relation to my lymphedema, a short run normally helps a great deal.
My advice is therefore quite clear: Do not focus on the number of kilometres/miles you are capable of running and do not dismiss running just because you are only able to run for 3-4 minutes; do it anyway. Because even the smallest amount of running might do you really good.
Other kinds of exercise
I have tried a lot of different kinds of sports trying to find out which had the best effect on both my mental well-being, my health and lymphedema and which I still found interesting to do. Down below I have made a short description of my experience with other forms of exercise than my “Fantastic 4” (yoga, swimming, running, astanga yoga).
But remember, you might gain from doing some of the exercises that have not worked for me, so give it a try yourself.
I just recently borrowed my mother’s racing bike and went for a long ride on it. I really loved it to be honest. And my legs seemed to react very well on this type of exercise. I am going to test this out more next summer when I have the chance. It might work well for both my mental well-being and my lymphedema to take a couple of long rides on this bike a few times a month.
- Body Pump, Bikini Fit and other group activities in the gym
I have tried doing different group activities in the gym that had a focus on different things, for example getting your abs looking better for the summer. I did each class for a few weeks, sometimes a couple of months, but then I always stopped. I stopped of two reasons. The first reason is that I basically think that I am not that in to going to the gym. I would much rather work out in a yoga studio with a few other people or exercise at home on my own preferred hours. The second reason is that I often experience that those classes in the gym does not work for my legs and I have to skip several of the exercises during the class, because they make my legs hurt in a bad way. It seems that my lymphedema does not react well on exercises with a lot of jumping around. The jumping up and down or back and forth make my legs feel stiff and hard.
- “Fitness yoga”
I tried out doing what I would call “fitness yoga” for a few months. I call it this because it is yoga that is a bit more upbeat, have the “fitness focus” and is a bit more about the training than the yoga itself. It was of course good exercise and my lymphedema did not respond in a negative way to doing this kind of yoga. But it seemed that my legs responded much, much better to the more classical yoga or astanga yoga. I have a theory that this was the case because of the breathing; the breathing is an important part of why the yoga works so well for my and my lymphedema, and fitness yoga is usually not that focused on the breathing. At least not as focused on it as with more traditional types of yoga.