Physical Activity Pre and Post Surgery
Original Editor - Wendy Walker
- 1 Benefits of Exercise Pre and Post Surgery
- 2 What Are the General Benefits of Preoperative Exercise?
- 3 What Are the Benefits of Preoperative Exercise in Specific Populations?
- 4 What Are the Benefits of Post-Operative Exercise?
- 5 Contraindications to Exercise Pre/Post Surgery
- 6 Resources
- 7 References
Benefits of Exercise Pre and Post Surgery
The effect of exercise on outcomes after surgery has been extensively studied in a number of populations. The most common populations studied are
- Post-hip replacement
- Post-knee replacement
- Post-cardiac surgery
- Post-abdominal surgery
- Other surgical groups such as colorectal, thoracic, post-cancer resection, vascular and urological.
Whilst the evidence is good in general terms, unfortunately, as yet there is no clear consensus on the specifics of exercise prescription pre-surgery.
Studies can be divided into those that look at the effect of interventions pre-operatively on post-surgical outcomes and those that look at the effect of different exercise interventions post-surgery.
What Are the General Benefits of Preoperative Exercise?
The evidence that if cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) is measured preoperatively, it is predictive of complications in the postoperative period is compelling, with several studies demonstrating this across different types of surgeries The measure of CRF also offers significant advantage when compared to age alone in predicting mortality after major surgery.
- CRF is a significant independent predictor of length of stay in hospital with patients older than 75
- A low CRF is associated with an average of 11 days longer in hospital and 2 days longer in critical care
Pre-operative exercise reduces the length of stay both in Intensive Care facilities and in hospital. It also exerts beneficial effects on physical fitness and postoperative outcomes measures across various surgical fields, including cardiac surgery, orthopedic surgery, abdominal surgery, thoracic surgery, vascular surgery and urologic surgery. In their scoping study, Pouwels et al (2016) conclude that more research is needed to focus on heterogeneous outcome measures, patient populations and guidelines for exercise regimes.
What Are the Benefits of Preoperative Exercise in Specific Populations?
In patients undergoing this surgery, significant improvements (small to moderate effect sizes) have been observed in pain, function, and length of stay with exercise interventions preoperatively. 
A 2014 systematic review (Chesham and Shanmugham) concluded that there is minimal evidence so far supporting education and exercise interventions pre-operatively, compared with no physiotherapy or usual care. Interventions reviewed in the 10 RCTs were preoperative exercise; combined exercise and education; combined exercise and acupuncture; neuromuscular electrical stimulation; and acupuncture versus exercise. Outcomes assessed were knee strength, ambulation, and pain. Good quality research into this is ongoing.
However Moyer et al (2017) in their systematic review and meta-analysis found small to moderate effect sizes for pre-rehabilitation in this population. Significant improvements were made in function, quadriceps strength and length of stay.
A Cochrane review in 2012 found that evidence from small trials suggests that preoperative physical therapy, with an exercise component, for elective cardiac surgery patients reduces postoperative pulmonary complications and length of hospital stay. They concluded that there is a lack of evidence to effect changes to postoperative pneumothorax, or prolonged mechanical ventilation.
It has been known for some years that inspiratory muscle training provided pre-operatively reduces the risk of anaesthetic complications as well as reducing post-operative complications as well as length of postoperative hospital stay and pulmonary function.
Pre-operative exercise reduces the length of stay both in Intensive Care facilities and in hospital. A randomised control trial showed positive effects of active cyclic breathing technique and routine physiotherapy on arterial oxygenation, heart rate, and pain perception following Coronary Artery Bypass Graft (CABG) surgery.
O'Doherty et al (2013) in their systematic review conclude that pre-operative exercise reduces the length of stay both in Intensive Care facilities and in hospital. A meta-analysis and systematic review done in 2016 (Moran et al) concluded that more research was needed, but 'prehabilitation' consisting of inspiratory muscle training, aerobic exercise, and/or resistance training can decrease postoperative complications after intra-abdominal operations.
Review suggests positive outcomes with preoperative exercises in bariatric surgery. However, further research concerning the exercise intervention mode, intensity, and timing before or after bariatric surgery to maximize cardiorespiratory fitness, physical function, and reducing cardiometabolic risk is required.
A systematic review in 2010 found that preoperative exercise therapy is effective for reducing both postoperative complication rates and length of hospital stay after cardiac or abdominal surgery. A Cochrane review in 2015 concluded that preoperative inspiratory muscle training reduced the incidence of postoperative pulmonary complications (such as actelectasis and pneumonia) and length of hospital stay compared with usual care in adults undergoing cardiac and major abdominal surgery.
A study on patients undergoing colorectal surgery found benefits from exercise programmes pre-operatively: improved physical function, peak exercise capacity, mental health and self-perceived health
A Cochrane review in 2017 found low quality evidence that preoperative exercise training may reduce some risks in those having lung resection surgery for early stage non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).. These were- developing postoperative pulmonary complications, duration of intercostal catheter use, a reduced postoperative length of stay and improved exercise capacity and FVC post-operatively. 
What Are the Benefits of Post-Operative Exercise?
There is clear evidence for the following surgeries:
- Spinal surgery - improved spinal mobility
- Total Hip and Knee Replacement surgery - earlier discharge
- Colorectal surgery - increased cardiovascular fitness
- Breast surgery - fewer side-effects
- In many surgeries: reduced risk of blood clots
- Cardiac surgery - inspiratory muscle training on length of postoperative hospital stay and pulmonary function 
Contraindications to Exercise Pre/Post Surgery
In addition to the absolute contraindications (see the Exercise Physiology page), specific precautions will apply depending on the surgery. The treating team (Doctors, Nurses, Physiotherapists) will give the patient specific advice on this.
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- Wilson RJT, Davies S, Yates D, et al. (2010) Impaired functional capacity is associated with all-cause mortality after major elective intra-abdominal surgery. Br J Anaesth 105: 297-303
- West RJT, Lythgoe D, Barbara C, et al. (2014) Cardiopulmonary exercise variables are associated with postoperative morbidity after major colonic surgery: a prospective blinded observational study. Br J Anaesth 101:1166-72
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- Ross Alexander Chesham & Sivaramkumar Shanmugam (2016) Does preoperative physiotherapy improve postoperative, patient-based outcomes in older adults who have undergone total knee arthroplasty? A systematic review, Physiotherapy Theory and Practice, 33:1, 9-30, DOI: 10.1080/09593985.2016.1230660
- Hulzebos EHJ, Smit Y, Helders PPJM, van Meeteren NLU. Preoperative physical therapy for elective cardiac surgery patients. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue 11. Art. No.: CD010118. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD010118.pub2.
- Hulzebos, EH, Helders, PJ, et al. Preoperative intensive inspiratory muscle training to prevent postoperative pulmonary complications in high-risk patients undergoing CABG surgery: a randomized clinical trial. ☀[/www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17047215 JAMA.] 2006 Oct 18;296(15):1851-7
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