Staying healthy in the lead up to an operation

profile photo of Dr Helen Hartley
Medical Director, Healthcare Management, Bupa Insurance
27 January 2023
Next review due January 2026

If you are waiting to have an operation, it’s worth thinking about how you can use this time to your advantage.

Looking after your health before surgery can make all the difference to your recovery, and even to the success of your operation. You’ll also be helping to improve your health over the long-term. So what can you do? Here, I'll go through some of the most important things to focus on when preparing for surgery.

Cut down on alcohol

Alcohol can affect your body’s ability to heal. And healing well will be really important after your surgery. If you’re a heavy drinker, you’re also more likely to get infections and other complications after an operation.

The recommendations for everyone are to not drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week. Fourteen units is the same as six pints of average-strength beer, or six typical 175ml glasses of wine. If you think you might be going over these recommendations, now’s the time to start tracking what you drink and cut down before your operation. You could try switching to alcohol free options or making some mocktails instead.

Stopping smoking

There are lots of reasons to stop smoking, but preparing for an operation is a good opportunity to quit. If you smoke, you’re at greater risk of complications and infections after surgery. Stopping smoking before your surgery could reduce the length of time you need to stay in hospital, as well as improve how quickly your body heals. Sometimes, surgeons won’t carry out a procedure until you have stopped smoking, as the risks from smoking can be so great.

It can be difficult to quit. If you smoke, your surgeon may have given you some advice and offered you support. They may direct you to specialist services. Your GP surgery can also advise and support you on this.

Diet and weight

Eating well before your surgery is important. Eating a healthy diet will provide the nutrients your body needs to repair itself. Being obese (having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more) puts you at greater risk of complications from both surgery and anaesthesia. These include breathing problems, heart and lung complications, and wound infections. Losing weight can help to reduce many risks associated with having surgery. It might make your surgery easier to perform too. If you’ve lost weight before your surgery, you’ll also improve your health for the future.

The best way to lose weight is to eat a nutrient dense diet, full of wholegrains, lean proteins, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats. Being active can help too. Your surgeon or GP should be able to signpost you to local services that can offer support with weight loss.

Fitness and exercise

It’s a good idea to keep active in the lead up to your surgery or increase your activity levels beforehand if you’re not currently very active. Having surgery creates additional demands on your body, especially your heart and lungs. So, the fitter you are, the better your heart and lungs will be able to cope with this. How active you are before your operation can also make a difference to how mobile you are afterwards too. Of course, if you’re not used to being very active, it’s best to talk to your doctor to ensure it is safe for you to exercise more.

Any activity that gets you out of breath will help – you could try brisk walking, cycling, dancing or swimming. If you can’t get out, there are plenty of exercises you can do free online, including high intensity interval training (HIIT) and yoga.

Even just doing the gardening or housework will help to keep you active.

Aim to include exercises and activities that help to maintain your muscle and bone strength too, such as:

  • pilates
  • climbing the stairs
  • carrying heavy bags

Keeping your strength up can help you to get back to your usual activities after leaving hospital and may also help protect against injury.

Managing pain

Being worried about the possible side-effects of your surgery, such as having pain, is common. Understanding how your body reacts to pain and learning how best to deal with any discomfort can help you now and after your operation.

How you feel and respond to pain is a really complex process. There’s the physiological side to it – whatever has happened in your body to cause the pain.

There’s also a psychological element  this means how your brain reacts to it. How bad your pain feels, and how much of an impact it has, is very specific to you. These things can be influenced by your feelings, attitudes and beliefs, as well as your past experiences. You might notice that your pain feels worse if you focus on it or feel negatively about it, for instance.

On the other hand, finding ways to distract yourself from pain and think positively may improve how you feel. Learning how to accept a certain level of discomfort that you can live with can also help.

Relaxation and breathing techniques can often help you to overcome, or more easily tolerate, any discomfort. Mindfulness and distraction are also useful techniques that can help you relax and avoid focusing on pain. Use the time before your surgery to practise these techniques so you feel prepared.


Long term conditions

If you have a long-term medical condition, it’s important to make sure it’s as well controlled as possible in the weeks before your surgery. Tell your surgical team if you have any conditions such as:

  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • lung conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

It’s also important to let them know if you snore, or have sleep apnoea, as this may affect the safety of your anaesthetic.

Whatever long-term medical condition you have, if you think your health isn’t as good as it could be in the weeks before your operation, talk to your doctor or specialist nurse. They may be able to suggest changes to your medication or lifestyle that can help.

Getting prepared

As well as trying to be as healthy as you can be before your operation, plan for your recovery afterwards. Will you need to make any changes at home? Will you need help from family or friends?

It’s really important to have a good, healthy diet after your surgery in order to heal well. Use the time beforehand to plan healthy meals and snacks you’ll be able to have when you get home, or arrange who will be able to help you with this. The Royal College of Anaesthetists has some useful information on what practical steps you can take to best prepare for surgery.

Becoming healthier as well as looking after your mental health before your operation can help to ensure your operation goes well and help your recovery.


profile photo of Dr Helen Hartley
Dr Helen Hartley
Medical Director, Healthcare Management, Bupa Insurance



Rasheda Begum, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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