Recovering from surgery can be a challenging process both physically and mentally. Patients are often eager to get back to their normal routines and regain strength and mobility as quickly as possible. Many patients wonder if light activity like walking can help speed up the recovery process after surgery. Here we will explore the evidence around walking and surgery recovery.
How does surgery impact the body?
First, it’s important to understand how surgery impacts the body and why recovery takes time. Major surgery causes injury to skin, muscles, tissues, nerves and blood vessels at the surgical site. After surgery, the body initiates an inflammatory and healing response to repair this damage. This involves increased blood flow to the area, growth of new tissue, and rebuilding of injured structures. The extent of the injury and healing response depends on factors like:
- Size and location of surgical incision
- Amount of tissue/organs manipulated or removed
- Duration of surgery
- Patient health conditions
This natural healing process takes time and energy. That’s why patients feel tired and weak in the days and weeks after surgery as the body directs resources towards recovery. Pain, swelling, bruising, and numbness at the surgery site are also common as the nerves, muscles and tissues mend.
Why is walking thought to help?
Many clinicians encourage patients to engage in gentle walking soon after surgery because it offers several potential benefits:
- Improves circulation: Moving the legs pumps blood flow to the surgical area, bringing oxygen and nutrients to aid healing.
- Prevents blood clots: Bedrest slows blood flow in the veins, increasing clot risk. Light walking boosts circulation to reduce this risk.
- Enhances muscle strength: Inactivity after surgery leads to muscle weakness and deconditioning. Walking gently exercises the muscles.
- Improves mobility: Walking helps joints/muscles regain function after being inactive during recovery.
- Relieves gas pains: Moving around can help pass gas and stool to relieve pains from surgery-related gut slowdown.
For these reasons, many doctors encourage patients to start gentle short walks within the first 24-48 hours after surgery as tolerated. Some benefits of early post-op walking may include faster recovery of strength and stamina, fewer pulmonary complications, and shorter hospital stays.
What does research show?
Several studies have looked at the impact of walking programs on surgery recovery time and outcomes. Here is some of the evidence:
- A 2017 meta-analysis found that starting physical therapy and walking on the day of surgery shortened the hospital stay after total knee replacement surgery.
- In a study of patients following hip fracture surgery, those randomized to a progressive walking program recovered mobility better and faster than those just doing daily living exercises.
- Multiple studies found that starting gentle walking soon after cardiac surgery shortens the hospital stay and speeds the recovery of physical function.
- A study in the American Journal of Critical Care reported that post-op cardiac surgery patients who walked farther and more frequently had shorter hospital stays.
General Abdominal Surgery
- Several trials found that early postoperative walking reduced return of bowel function and enabled earlier discharge after abdominal surgery.
- A Cochrane review concluded that early mobilization after abdominal surgery is safe and reduces recovery time by 1-3 days for most patients.
Overall the evidence suggests that starting gentle, progressive walking soon after major surgery can safely speed physical and functional recovery in many types of surgical patients.
Guidelines for post-op walking
The exact walking regimen appropriate after surgery will depend on several factors, but here are some general guidelines:
- Start slowly – Begin with 5-10 minutes of gentle walking every 2-3 hours the first 1-2 days.
- Gradually increase – Build up daily walking duration and distance over the first week as able.
- Moderate intensity – Walk at an easy, relaxed pace. Don’t push through pain or fatigue.
- Flat surfaces – Stick to level hallways and avoid stairs, ramps or uneven ground initially.
- Monitor pain – Stop if pain increases and inform your provider.
- Supervise if needed – Have someone assist on early walks in case you become tired or dizzy.
- Take rest breaks – Alternate short walking sessions with periods of rest.
Talk to your surgeon or physical therapist about when to start walking and how to progress activity appropriately for your specific surgery.
Risks to be aware of
While evidence shows walking can benefit recovery, it’s important to be aware of potential risks and precautions after surgery:
- Blood clots: Sitting/laying for too long raises clot risk. But walking too soon may also disturb surgical site clots.
- Swelling: Too much activity can increase swelling, pain and ooze at incision sites.
- Bleeding: After surgery there is a risk of internal bleeding if activity is too strenuous.
- Infection: Moving too much may stress surgical wounds and increase infection risk.
- Slowed healing: Walking too much too soon could tear internal stitches and tissues.
That’s why it’s crucial to follow your surgeon’s specific instructions for appropriate walking activity after surgery to find the right balance between risks and benefits.
Tips for safe, comfortable post-op walking
Here are some additional tips to help make post-operative walking safe and more manageable:
- Take pain medication beforehand if needed to make walking more comfortable.
- Use any assistive devices prescribed by your provider like a cane or walker.
- Aim to walk in the morning when rested rather than evening.
- Wear loose, comfortable clothing that won’t rub incision sites.
- Walk near walls, railings or with someone in case you need support.
- Keep the ambulation area cool to prevent overheating.
- Stay well hydrated – dehydration can increase risk of dizziness or fainting.
Listen to your body
The key is to increase walking gradually as your body is ready. Let pain and fatigue guide you – mild muscle soreness is expected, but sharp pain at the surgery site or exhaustion means it’s time to stop and rest. Don’t compare yourself to others. Focus on making steady day-by-day progress at your own comfortable pace.
Other important recovery tips
While gentle walking can support healing, other recovery recommendations are important as well:
- Follow activity precautions from your surgeon until cleared.
- Attend all follow-up appointments to monitor progress.
- Do ankle pumps and deep breathing to prevent pulmonary complications.
- Use incentive spirometry if prescribed after abdominal/chest surgery.
- Change positions regularly to prevent pressure injuries.
- Consume nutritional foods and supplements to aid healing.
- Drink adequate fluids to stay hydrated.
- Take any prescribed medications to manage pain and swelling.
- Get adequate rest between walking sessions.
Talk to your healthcare provider
Experts recommend having a discussion with your surgeon or provider about the right walking regimen to follow after your specific surgery type and health status. Don’t start any new walking program without their input. Together you can create a safe plan focused on regaining mobility and speeding recovery through appropriate post-operative walking activity.