One of my goals for these posts is to use individual studies to point out the broader trends they suggest.  This week I want to focus on our increasing understanding of the value of exercise after illness or injury.  A generation ago a heart attack meant weeks of bed rest in the hospital followed by strict instructions from the doctor to take it easy.  The weakened heart couldn’t take much exertion, we thought.  Now after a heart attack patients are told to start exercising as soon as they’re out of the hospital.  Similarly, patients with acute back pain were prescribed bed rest for days; now we encourage staying active and gradually increasing activity to decrease the pain.

This week the New England Journal of Medicine continues that trend for breast cancer patients.  One of the most uncomfortable consequences of breast cancer surgery is lymphedema in the arm.  Lymphedema is the accumulation of fluid that can happen after lymph nodes are removed during breast cancer surgery.  The affected arm can become swollen, painful and prone to skin infections.

The typical advice for women with lymphedema has been to avoid weight lifting or vigorous exercise with the affected arm, fearing that this would worsen the swelling or injure the susceptible limb.  This week’s study tested that assumption, randomizing women with arm lymphedema after breast cancer surgery to a group that engaged in closely supervised weight lifting and another group that did not.

Surprisingly, the women who were lifting weights had fewer exacerbations of their lymphedema, and had milder lymphedema symptoms than those who were not lifting weights.  Not surprisingly, the women who were lifting weights also developed better upper body strength.

So there are increasingly fewer medical reasons to be sedentary, and we can add breast-cancer-related lymphedema to the many conditions that are improved by exercise.

Learn more:

New England Journal of Medicine Article:  Weight Lifting in Women with Breast-Cancer–Related Lymphedema

CNN article:  Weight lifting benefits breast cancer survivors