Undergoing any type of surgery is tough on the body, and even more so if it’s for serious conditions, such as cancer. But getting in shape before surgery – known as prehabilitation – can significantly improve patients’ recovery, for example by reducing how long they need to stay in hospital afterwards.
We conducted a review of the current research on prehabilitation in cancer surgery, looking at 15 studies in total. We wanted to know what effects certain prehabilitation programmes had on three different outcomes from cancer surgery. These included how long patients remained in hospital after surgery, their physical function (measured by how far they could walk in six minutes) and whether they had complications or died following surgery.
The programmes we investigated were grouped into three main types depending on whether they offered either exercise or nutrition advice, both, or a combination of the two alongside psychological support. Patients did a variety of different types of exercise, including aerobic exercise (such as cycling or running), resistance training (such as squats or lifting weights) and HIIT (high-intensity interval training).
For some people the exercises were supervised by a sports scientists or physiotherapists, while some worked through the programme on their own. The programmes lasted between one and four weeks.
We weren’t able to determine in detail how each specific programme affected patients compared to others. But our research did show that in general, getting in shape before surgery improved patients’ recovery, in particular shortening their hospital stay. Getting in shape was the most important factor, showing that many different programmes can be used and tailored to each patient.