Planning a surgery this year? Here are 6 ways to prepare for a speedy recovery

By Maria Masters

Shoring up your health now — before you check in — can help reduce your recovery time after the operation

Not all surgeries have to be scheduled right away. Some procedures — such as kidney stone removal, a knee or hip replacement and even certain elective cardiac interventions — can be penciled in weeks or months in advance. 

One benefit of picking your own date — you’ll have more time to prepare, both physically and mentally. Taking charge of your health before undergoing surgery — a concept called “prehabilitation” (or “prehab”) — can help speed your recovery. And research suggests that it may also help reduce pain and lower your risk of complications.

Prehab is about taking proactive steps to physically and mentally prepare for surgery, and it’s becoming standard practice, says Milton “Chip” Routt, M.D., a professor of orthopedic surgery at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.

In the past, Dr. Routt explains, convincing people to engage in physical activity before their operation could be a challenge. “They were of the mindset that they were coming to get the surgery so that they could then get themselves in shape.” 

Now, he says, “people understand that if their heart and lungs are more fit ahead of time, the anesthesia won’t be so hard on them. Also, if they have some level of fitness before the operation, their fitness after recovery is going to be better.”

A solid prehab plan now may help save you time and money later. In a study in the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, researchers noted that the use of post–acute care services fell by nearly 30% if patients sought prehab physical therapy before their procedure. And a 2019 report in the journal Clinics in Geriatric Medicine found that prehab programs not only resulted in fewer post-op complications but also helped improve patients’ self-reported quality of life afterward. Also, a 2019 study of Medicare recipients in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons found that those who did prehab spent less time in the hospital and needed less care when they got out.

Grab your pencil and paper — here are six smart ways to prepare for your upcoming surgery. 

1. Schedule the procedure in-network

Surgery costs can pile up quickly. A surprise medical bill can run into the thousands of dollars depending on the operation, so don’t take chances. Ask your health care provider if the procedure is being performed in-network. 

2. Get moving

To boost your fitness before the big day, try doing a combination of strength and aerobic exercises. A licensed physical therapist can teach you specific movements based on your needs and upcoming procedure.

Ideally, you want to start focusing on fitness four to six weeks before surgery. But even if your date is just two weeks away, you can still see benefits. 

3. Switch up your eating habits 

How about some eggs Florentine? Protein helps boost tissue growth and cell turnover, and a healthy diet in general can help promote wound healing. If you’re low in vitamins and minerals — including vitamins A, B, K and zinc — your body may have a harder time recovering from an injury, say researchers at Boston University School of Medicine.

Wondering whether you should take a multivitamin or the best foods for you to eat during prehab? Talk to your surgeon or health care provider. After your operation, you may also be eligible for free meal deliveries with your UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage plan; check your plan website to see if your plan offers this extra benefit.

4. Revamp your lifestyle habits

If you smoke, quitting would be ideal, especially in the weeks or even days leading up to the procedure. Likewise, drinking alcohol before surgery can increase your risk of infection and bleeding, so try to abstain (or ask your doctor for ways to get help quitting).

5. Line up support

Even routine surgeries can be stressful, so recruit your family and friends to your care team before the operation. “It’s that old concept of ‘it takes a village,’” Dr. Routt says.

“The rehab is just as important as the surgical technique,” he says. “Recovery can get ruined by a poor postoperative rehab plan or the inability for the patient to accommodate it. It takes a lot of support.” 

6. Educate yourself 

They say knowledge is power, and that goes for surgery, too. “For elective surgery, a lot of education can be done prior to the surgery,” says Dr. Routt. “Awareness always helps with a patient’s management.”

For example, learning as much as you can about how to care for your wounds will help you feel more confident during the recovery phase, he explains. You can also include any primary caregivers in your recovery plan, so they also have the specifics close at hand. 

“It’s always better when everybody is on the same page and knows what the routines are,” says Dr. Routt.

Already a member?

Sign in or register on your plan website to see personalized benefit details and resources to help you manage your plan and health.