Exercising Safely After Surgery

How to Start or Return to an Exercise Program After Surgery

Surgery Images, Surgery Patients Images,
Avoid Lifting After Abdominal Surgery. © Getty Images/Barrett Forster

When you have surgery, your exercise program my have to be put on for a few days or even weeks.  Starting exercise or even returning to exercise can be a challenge, you may have less energy than usual or you may be concerned about causing an injury by doing too much.  For others, doing too little can be difficult, with the constant urge to participate in activity conflicting with the need to rest and recover.

Pain Is Not Your Friend

“No pain, no gain” is not appropriate for your first attempts at working out after surgery.  Pain is a sign that you are doing too much and you need to do less, go easier, choose a different activity or stop.  This is not the time to push through pain, this is a time to avoid pain whenever possible. 

Don’t Start Where You Left Off

Let’s say you were extremely active when you had surgery, running and jumping and lifting on a regular basis.  If you were to attempt to return to the same level of activity that you participated in prior to surgery, you can expect to be disappointed in your performance and you may also injure yourself.  

Think about what you did on an “easy” day of activity.  Plan to do much less than that on your first day back to exercise, even if you had a minor procedure.  Anesthesia and surgery will dramatically decrease your stamina. This may only last for a few days, but it is a real effect of surgery and has to be respected when you exercise.


For example, if you are a runner who routinely runs five miles a day, a one or two mile walk might be an appropriate way to ease back into things.  You may have to do even less than that.  Pushing too hard on your first day back can lead to extreme fatigue and even pain the next day.

A New Exercise Plan

If you were not exercising prior to surgery, a general rule of thumb for increasing exercise is to increase by no more than ten percent each week.

  This means that if you are walking ten blocks, the next week you could add ten percent to your walk, so the second week you would walk eleven blocks.  They key here is to start with a modest goal that can be met without leading to soreness and pain the next day.  

Don’t start with running, start with walking and see how it goes.  Don’t start out with 100 lengths of the pool, start with some easy swimming with frequent breaks and some water walking.  

Start With Low Impact

Don’t start with kickboxing or running or anything that is jarring to your body.  Start with gentle exercise, such as gentle yoga, walking, or water aerobics.  If you are pleasantly surprised with how you feel the next day, increase your low impact exercise before you start adding higher impact exercise.  

Baby Your Surgical Site

If your surgical site is in your abdomen, don’t start exercise with tons of crunches and sit ups.  This can lead to soreness that is almost as bad as the day after surgery.  It can also lead to If you had carpal tunnel surgery, lifting hand weights isn’t a smart place to start.

  Remember that your incision is deep, cutting through not just your skin, but layers of tissue and muscle.  Well-healed skin doesn’t mean that the muscles underneath are ready for a serious workout, and they may not be capable of tolerating serious strain.  If you had foot surgery plan on doing exercise, such as water aerobics, that takes the strain off of your feet.   

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Be Cautious With Lifting

Lifting and putting pressure on an abdominal incision before your doctor has said it is safe can lead to a serious complication called dehiscence or more serious problem called evisceration.  

Do not lift heavy objects until your wound has completely healed, the estimated time of recovery is typically covered in your post-surgery instructions.  After a cesarean section, for example, most women are instructed not to lift anything heavier than their newborn for six weeks.  If you are instructed not to lift for a specific period of time, plan on not doing abdominal exercise during that time frame as well.

Know What Is Safe For You

Talk to your surgeon, first and foremost, about what is acceptable activity after surgery and when it is safe to get started.  Each patient and surgery is unique, and you may be pleasantly surprised by when you can return to activity.  These guidelines aren’t arbitrary, they are usual established by many years of performing surgery and watching patients successfully, and not successfully, recover from surgery. 

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If It Hurts, Do Less

So you started with a one mile walk and the next day is a misery of pain and soreness.  Wait a few days and try again.  Maybe walk a block, perhaps two, but you know without a doubt that you overdid it.  For some patients, walking to the mailbox may be plenty, or even too much.  Do what you can do comfortably, pain is a sign that you’ve done too much.

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