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Technology and Physical Activity: Can it be used to help manage Lymphoedema?

The human lymph system performs the vital function of removing excess fluids and waste products from body cells. Lymphoedema is a condition which occurs when the lymph system is unable to perform its normal draining function, and thus causes a build-up of fluid in bodily tissues, resulting in chronic swelling under the skin. A failing lymph system will also impair normal immune function and heighten the risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

Lymphoedema therefore is not only an extremely unpleasant condition for the sufferer, but also a potentially dangerous one. Despite this, little research has been conducted in comparison to other conditions of similar population-wide prevalence rates. Much of the historical literature has pointed towards exercise being ‘unsafe’ for lymphoedema sufferers, however a review of recent studies appears to debunk this myth.

Muscular contractions produced by various types of physical activity are the main mechanism by which lymph flows around the body. This can explain why sedentary time and obesity are considered primary risk factors for the condition. This might lead to the conclusion that exercise is necessary to tackle the condition, which to a certain extent is true. However, the swelling and stiffness can make it particularly challenging for sufferers to undertake certain types of physical activity. Therefore, participating in activities which are both comfortable in type and intensity is crucial for the effective management of the condition. This is where the multi-dimensional nature of physical activity becomes relevant.

Fortunately, we are now living in a world in which technology that is capable of recording and summarising physical activity across various domains is more readily available than ever before. Many of the available devices still place a heavy focus on heart rate, suggesting that more intense exercise is necessary to gain health benefits. This ignores the benefits that result from undertaking general daily tasks such as gardening and ironing. The accumulation of activity across these small tasks throughout the day all add up.

At KiActiv, we recognise that physical activity should be considered multi-dimensional. Daily free-living activities represent just one aspect of the multi-dimensional model, which can be split into categories related to the intensity of the activity being undertaken. Due to the nature of the condition, lymphoedema sufferers may still be able to feel the benefits of physical activity by targeting the lower-intensity categories such as non-sedentary time. Personalised feedback also helps patients understand how and where they are achieving exercise targets. This represents a far more realistic and achievable way of incorporating exercise into treatment plans, building the necessary autonomy and competence to help promote sustained behaviour change.