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the 5 steps to recovery after your open-heart surgery

The steps you need to take right now to improve your physical and mental well-being after open-heart surgery.

Open heart surgery is a major, and often traumatic, experience. There will be a lot of things you get told not to do, such as, “Don’t lift anything heavy”, “Don’t raise your arms above your head” and “You’re not allowed to drive until you get cleared from your surgeon or doctor”.

So, what can you do to recover faster and reduce your risk of complications after open-heart surgery? What can you do to better manage your pain, stress levels and improve your physical fitness and general health so you can return to your work and family life faster. You are about to learn the 5 easy steps to take after your open-heart surgery that will help you recover faster and improve your physical and mental well-being.

  1. Get moving
  2. Cut the salt
  3. Quit smoking
  4. Take your medications
  5. Breathe


Get moving

This is such an important step in your recovery because it will help recover faster from your surgery and reduce your risk of future heart problems. Regular exercise will improve your heart and lung function, your fitness and energy levels as well as your mood and confidence.

Three things you should be doing:

  1. Walking daily
    Even small amounts like walking to your letterbox and back, or down the street and back or around the block every day will make a difference. You can focus on the time or distance you walk, or the number of steps you walk each day. Start small and build slowly.
  1. Your chest mobility exercises given to you by the hospital
    These stretches and movements of your trunk, arms and neck are designed restore your mobility and improve your posture immediately after surgery.
  1. Your advanced chest mobility exercises
    From 4 weeks after your open-heart surgery, you can start doing you advanced mobility exercises as long as you haven’t had any major complications. These movements and stretches involve your upper back and rib cage and will continue to help restore your posture and upper body mobility after surgery. They will also help with pain management.**If you get any pain during a new movement, STOP and wait for further instruction from your doctor, nurse or exercise physiologist.


Cut the salt

This is a critical change to make, if you haven’t already done it. When we consume large amounts of salt, we are encouraging our bodies to hold onto water. Have you ever noticed how thirsty you get when eating salty foods? This becomes a problem because when we hold onto more fluid in our bodies, we increase our blood volume. This puts you at risk of bursting a pipe, or blood vessel, which can cause a stroke, aneurysm or internal bleeding.

The 3 ways to reduce your salt intake are:

  1. Reduce the amount of processed foods you eat.
    Processed foods are usually high in salts as salt is used as a preservative.
  1. Don’t add salt when cooking or at the table.
    Use herbs and spices instead, to flavour food.
  1. Read the nutrition label.
    To know if a food product has a good level of salt in it, read the sodium content in the ‘per 100g’ column. This column allows you to compare different brands of similar food products. You want to aim for foods with < 400mg of salt per 100g, but ideally < 120mg per 100g.


quit smoking

Now I’m not going to tell you why you should quit smoking. I know you already know the answers. Instead I’m going to give you 3 useless tips to help you quit:

  1. Set date
    Put a post-it note on your fridge and tell others your plan. Then start to change your habits and learn how to handle stress and urges. And think about your support network – who and what can help you through tough times.
  1. Call QuitLine on 13 78 48
    They can give you information and advice and even send out a pack to help you quit smoking.
  1. Don’t give up
    Many people will reach a speed bump in their quitting journey and start smoking again. Use this opportunity to learn and grow. Think about:
    • What made you smoke again?
    • How can you deal with this situation next time?
    • What did or didn’t work?

Like with most behaviours, it takes time, effort and practice to get it right. Think about how many times you have tried to lose weight, exercise more or even how many attempts it took to be able to ride your bike without falling off! Don’t let little speed bumps ruin your motivation, let them fuel the fire.


take your medications

It is vitally important to take your medications as prescribed by your doctor because they will help manage your cardiovascular condition and symptoms.

After your open-heart surgery, you will likely be on:

  1. Blood thinner (or anticoagulants)
    These reduce your chances of developing blood clots and help your blood move through your blood vessels more easily.
  1. Medications for blood pressure
    Reducing your blood pressure helps to reduce the strain on your heart because it doesn’t have to work as hard to pump the blood out. These medications also help to move blood through your blood vessels more easily.
  1. Pain medications
    After open-heart surgery, you will like be in pain. These medications help to manage your pain so that you can focus and recovering and getting back to your life again.

It is estimated that up to 50% of Australian adults do not take their medicines as prescribed by their cardiologist or doctor. Poor medication adherence leads to worsen of symptoms, disease progression and an increased risk of further serious cardiac events.



Aside from the obvious benefit, breathing has many physical, mental and emotional benefits. Breathing helps to manage pain, stress, getting to sleep and being physically active.

The 3 main reasons you should be breathing with purpose.

  1. Lung function
    Breathing deep into your belly helps to expand your lungs down, while side breathing helps to expand your ribs. This deep breathing will also help to clear your lungs of any mucous. You may also get a lung device during your hospital stay which will help you improve the force with which you can breathe out.
  1. Stress
    Practicing mindful breathing when you are stressed, reduced your cortisol levels (stress hormone) and reduces your heart rate.
  1. Sleep
    Another good thing about practicing mindful breathing, is that while reducing your heart rate it also relaxes your muscles and mind which can help you fall asleep. I know I definitely use the 4-5-6 method to help me get to sleep if I’m struggling. Breathe in through your nose to a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 5, and exhale slowly for a count of 6. Repeat this 4 times. That’s 1 minute!! To see and feel the amazing benefits.


So, there you have it! The 5 simple steps to get back to what matters most to you after your open-heart surgery. There are a lot of changes after open-heart surgery and a lot of things that you can’t or shouldn’t do in the early stages. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, try to focus on what you CAN do and run with it. There are support groups available, unfortunately not many face to face options unless you attend cardiac rehab (which is strongly recommended). Otherwise, there are many Facebook groups and other online groups specific for people who have had open-heart surgery.  I hope this information helps you to get started on your HeartFit journey a little easier.


Ready to take your exercise routine to the next level? Contact us to chat about your options and we can guide you on the right (easy, simple and fun) path.


Need help or guidance? Book in for a one-on-one consultation with us to find out what’s best for you and your health.

Can’t get to us? Read our Telehealth Blog to find out if this option suits you better.

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