Exercising before surgery found to help patients recover without complications, study finds

A recent study found that patients who had undertaken HIIT workouts before undergoing surgery had a lower risk of developing complications after the operation.
A recent study found that patients who had undertaken HIIT workouts before undergoing surgery had a lower risk of developing complications after the operation. Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Giulia Carbonaro
Share this articleComments
Share this articleClose Button

Exercising before undergoing major surgery could help patients avoid common complications like pneumonia, cardiac and abdominal problems.


Exercising before undergoing all types of major surgery might help avoid complications after the operation, according to researchers. But not just any physical exercise: it’s a short programme of high-intensity interval training - also known as HIIT - which seems to do the trick.

According to their study, published in the journal Surgery, patients who had undergone HIIT training before going on the operation table saw a 56 per cent drop in post-operative complications and shorter stays in hospital. This type of training normally involves the repetition of high-intensity aerobic exercises for a short amount of time, intervalled by a quick recovery period. During this training, people’s heartbeat reaches 80 per cent of its maximum rate.

“We have found that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is safe and effective for surgical patients,” lead investigator Dr Kari Clifford said. “A HIIT programme can meaningfully improve a patient’s fitness within four to six weeks, and this reduces postoperative complications and length of stay.”

Clifford and her team analysed and reviewed 12 existing studies including 832 patients - whose average age was between 66 and 67 - who had undertaken HIIT programmes before surgery. The types of surgery analysed were all expected to last more than 2 hours or had an anticipated blood loss of greater than 500ml. These included liver, lung, colorectal, urologic and mixed major abdominal surgeries.

How does HIIT help patients?

There’s a reason why researchers looked at HIIT specifically.

“The pooled results suggest that HIIT increases cardiorespiratory fitness by 2.39 ml/min/kg,” Clifford said. “This is not only significantly different than standard surgical care, but is also clinically relevant: we know that this level of increase is associated with a lower risk of adverse postoperative outcomes.”

While 30 per cent of patients who undergo major surgery - half of whom are considered “frail” - generally experience postoperative complications like pneumonia, bowel issues, and cardiac problems, the risk of having such complications went down by 56 per cent among patients who had undertaken HIIT.

These patients also stayed for three fewer days in hospital, on average, after surgery.

How can this study help people?

Clifford said that the study’s findings “suggest that a period – even as brief as four weeks – of pre-surgery high-intensity interval training may substantially improve patient outcomes and bring with it robust benefits across patient populations.”

Another issue is how to implement such programmes for patients. While many do HIIT watching videos online via YouTube, for example, introducing a supervised exercise programme for hospital patients might be expensive.

“We are looking at how effective it is to support people training at home or in the community,” Clifford said. “Funding these programs may save money in the long term by reducing the cost of hospital stay and surgical complications.”

Share this articleComments

You might also like