Exercise is medicine – how heart surgery patients bounce back after surgery


For patients who have had postoperative heart surgery, the road to recovery can often be slow and frustrating, but new research from Swinburne may inspire patients to look at their rehabilitation records with a new level of optimism.

Exercise is generally limited to light activity for twelve weeks while patients recover from operations that have taken up to four hours. But Swinburne’s new study shows that upper-body resistance training can begin and be beneficial just two weeks after surgery.

Exercise like your heart depends on it

This groundbreaking research was led by accredited exercise physiologist Jacqueline Pengelly, who is Swinburne Physiotherapy’s first PhD Fellow.

Beginning just two weeks after heart surgery, Pengelly says the program included 12 weeks of resistance training, performed using both limbs simultaneously.

“Patients are often told to avoid or limit the use of their arms and to take up walking, which means they are unable to perform or resume daily or recreational activities, which can be a frustration and a sense of loss of identity,” Pengelly said.

Jacqueline Pengelly, accredited exercise physiologist and PhD student at Swinburne.

“Patients in the resistance training program reported feeling stronger and motivated to keep trying to increase their workload. Because they were supervised and their safety and recovery were monitored, they gained the knowledge and confidence to return to activities they enjoy safer and sooner than minimal activity rehabilitation programs.

“Mild cognitive impairment can affect up to 80% of patients for months or even years, leading to loss of autonomy and delayed recovery. Our study showed that patients who begin resistance training early recover faster, within three months of surgery.

Patients were closely monitored throughout the study and were only prescribed exercises within their physical capabilities.

Rehashing Rehab for the Better

Jacqueline says there is growing evidence supporting more active recovery programs, as opposed to passive ones.

“It allows patients to become independent earlier in their recovery process, relying less on their family/carers, which has a positive impact on their physical and mental health.”

The future of post-operative recovery

Jacqueline now aims to conduct a larger study with more surgery and resistance training intervention sites using a range of resistance equipment.

“This would mean that resistance training is more accessible to patients and would give exercise physiologists and physiotherapists the confidence to replicate training in their own cardiac rehabilitation programs.

“Exercise is medicine – exercise physiologists must carefully select outcome measures appropriate to patient ability and use this information to prescribe appropriate exercises and exercise intensities. It’s time for a change, so let’s go.

Jacqueline expressed her gratitude to her research team, and to the patients and cardiothoracic staff at the Royal Melbourne and Melbourne private hospitals, whose willingness to participate in the project made these discoveries possible.

Research Team: Dr Jacqueline Pengelly, Prof Doa El-Ansary, Prof Colin Royse, Prof Alistair Royse, Prof Gavin Williams and A/Prof Adam Bryant

Kieser-Team: Fenan Ghirmay, Brett Long and Tim Dettmann


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