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Get in shape for surgery: 5 ways to have the best chance of recovery

1. Look after your mental health How are you feeling? Common things that people tell us while they are waiting for surgery include “I feel overwhelmed”, “I’m anxious I’ll get coronavirus in hospital” or “my surgery keeps getting rescheduled and I feel powerless”. It’s normal to feel worried.

If your concern is about coronavirus, remember that hospitals have systems in place to allow people who have coronavirus to be separated from people who don’t, as well as extra hygiene measures in place, so that the risk of getting the virus is as low as possible.

2. Move a bit more

mature woman exercising at home

Getting active before surgery will benefit most people. This is because your heart and lungs will have to work harder after an operation to help your body to heal. Regular exercise makes your heart and lungs stronger, so they’ll be in the best possible shape to help you heal.

In a study at McMaster University, Canada, people waiting for bypass surgery exercised twice a week in the run-up to the operation. They did a warm-up, around 30 minutes of aerobic activity such as cycling or brisk walking, and a cool-down. They spent on average one day less in hospital than those who hadn’t done the exercise programmed, and, six months after surgery, reported better quality of life.

Similarly, in a study run by King’s College Hospital, London, people over 65 waiting for bypass or valve surgery did at-home balance and strengthening exercises. They were encouraged to keep a home exercise diary and during telephone consultations, they would be encouraged, and praised for their efforts. The research found they were fitter and less frail on average after the surgery than the comparison group. You could try your own exercise programmed – have you ever thought of keeping an exercise diary as well as asking someone to encourage you for your efforts?

  • Anyone can get more active. Even if you can’t exercise standing up there are things you can do. Find out how you can safely get more active before your surgery.

  • Try an app on your phone to help you set goals and track your progress, such as ‘Active 10 walking tracker’ and ‘Couch to 5K’.

  • A lot of people find they’re more motivated when they exercise with other people and love the support and encouragement it brings. Could you do a weekly walk with a friend or loved one, or join an online class together?

3. Eat the right things

warming bowl of soup

When you’re about to have surgery, your diet may be the furthest thing from your mind. But what you eat before your procedure may help you recover faster. Improving your diet before your surgery improves immune health, reduces your risk of infection, provides your body with the nutrients it needs for tissue healing, and may help you get home from the hospital faster.

While you’re waiting for surgery, focus on eating a healthy balanced diet filled with a variety of foods from all the food groups. By doing this, you’ll get all the nutrients that support healing and fight off infection.

The best things to eat before surgery include:

  • Healthy proteins, such as fish, chicken, eggs, beans, soy, tofu, nuts, lean red meat
  • Grains, such as whole-wheat bread, brown rice, brown pasta, quinoa
  • Fruit and vegetables – at least 5 portions a day
  • Dairy, low-fat milk, cheese and yoghurt, or fortified plant-milk alternatives
  • Healthy fats, such as olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds
  • Find some great heart-healthy recipe ideas

You may need to make a few changes to your diet as you get closer to the date of your surgery. You will be given specific instructions on what you need to do at your pre-operative assessment.

4. Manage your weight

feet stepping onto scales

One way to improve your recovery after surgery is to make sure you’re a healthy weight before the surgery. Once you know your weight you can check your BMI and see if you’re underweight, a healthy weight or overweight.

Being overweight increases the risk of complications during surgery, such as breathing problems, blood clots, infections, slower recovery and longer hospital stays. So you may be advised to lose weight before the surgery. For most people, losing even a little weight before the operation will help reduce your risk of complications.

  • See our tips for losing weight

For many people who are struggling to lost weight, changing their portion sizes makes all the difference. You can find out about the right portion sizes for different foods with our interactive portion size guide.

  • Learn more about managing your weight

Being underweight can also increase risks from surgery and slow down the rate at which you recover. If you’ve been poorly then you may have lost your appetite and lost weight, and your body might not be getting the calories and nutrients it needs. If this is the case, your GP may have referred you to a dietitian; if not then you can ask them to. They could advise a special diet or supplements to make sure you’re still getting what you need before your surgery.

5. Take your medication

Statin pills

It’s always important to take any heart medication you’re prescribed, but if you’re waiting for surgery, it’s more important than ever. Heart medications will help keep your condition under control whilst you’re waiting for surgery, so that you feel better during the waiting period. And they reduce the risk of you having a serious event that could mean that your surgery can’t go ahead.

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