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Heart Surgery Patient Guide

Resuming Activities and Exercise After Heart Surgery

Lifting and Reaching

If your surgery required an incision on your sternum (breastbone), it will take about 6-8 weeks for your sternum to heal. During this time, you may do light household chores, such as laundry, shopping, cooking, light gardening, dusting, and washing dishes when you feel up to it.

Do not lift, push or pull objects heavier than 5 pounds until your doctor says it is okay to do so.

Try not to stand in one place for longer than 15 minutes. Do not sit for more than an hour; take a break for a few minutes and walk around or move your legs.

Physical Activities

You may do light, quick activities where your arms are above your shoulders, such as brushing your hair. But do not do any activities where your arms are above shoulder level for a long time, such as washing a window or dusting a high shelf. Do not do any activity that causes pain or pulling across your chest.

To get the most out of your day, plan to do the most important activities first. Don't try to do everything at once, and schedule unfinished activities for another day. Make sure that you get plenty of rest in between activities.

Climbing Stairs and Steps

Unless restricted by your doctor, it's okay for you to climb stairs and steps. Because you may be off-balanced after surgery, be careful and hold the handrail when walking up and down stairs. If you need to, stop and rest before you finish walking up or down a full flight. Try not to use the stairs immediately after surgery, and try to plan your activities so that you use the stairs only when necessary.


Fatigue is probably the number one patient complaint following heart surgery. Fatigue results from an extended lack of sleep while in the hospital, energy used by your body to heal its wounds, and energy used to fight off pain. To combat fatigue, listen to what your body is telling you. Space your activities to allow for rest periods. Take plenty of naps, walk regularly, eat well, and use your pain medication as needed. It's important that you rest and get a good night's sleep. Even if it's early in the night, if you feel tired, go to bed.

Driving and Riding in a Car

You should not drive for 3-4 weeks from the date of your surgery or while you are still taking narcotic pain pills. During this time your reaction time may be dulled, and if an incision was made on your sternum, your breastbone will still be healing. You may be a passenger in a car at any time. Make sure to wear your seat belt. You may cushion your incision with a soft towel or pillow.

Returning to Work

Returning to work depends upon the type of work you do and your energy level. It usually takes 4-6 weeks before most patients feel they have returned to their full energy level. The decision to return to work should be made jointly between you and your surgeon. You may want to consider working half days at first.


Delay vacations or extended trips away from home for approximately 2-3 weeks, or until after the first post operative visit with your surgeon. Avoid air travel for two weeks from the date of your discharge. This restriction is designed to prevent you from being too far away from your surgeon should a problem arise.


You may resume sexual activity after your surgery. In the first few weeks after surgery, however, you may find that pain along your incision may limit your activity to a certain extent. Just remember that during the first eight weeks after surgery, any activity or position that causes pain or pulling across your chest, such as bearing weight on your arms, must be avoided.


Proper exercise will help your healing and recovery, as well as increase your stamina, maintain your ideal weight by burning calories, and lower stress in your everyday life.

Tips for exercising:

  • Check with your doctor or cardiac rehabilitation specialist regarding exercises that are safe for you to do immediately after surgery and in the long term.
  • Make your exercises a regular/daily routine. Try to walk every day and gradually increase your distance over time.
  • Instead of going for a straight distance, you may want to walk around your block several times so that you are always close to home.
  • Don't worry about how fast you are walking, but concentrate on how much you are walking.
  • Take someone with you the first few times you walk.
  • Always wear comfortable clothes and shoes.
  • Don't exercise if the weather is bad, or if it's too cold or too warm outside. Because of the controlled temperature, an indoor shopping mall is a good place to walk.
  • Make sure you are not exercising too hard. Stop if you are exhausted, short of breath, feel dizzy, or have discomfort in your chest. Call your doctor if these symptoms persist and you are not able to do your regular exercises.

When to Call Your Physician

  1. Fever > 101 degrees Fahrenheit or > 38.5 degrees Centigrade.
  2. Extreme fatigue
  3. Difficulty breathing
  4. Dizziness or fainting
  5. Palpitations or fast, irregular heart beat
  6. Increased redness, tenderness or drainage of any surgical incision
  7. Unrelieved nausea or vomiting
  8. Excessive wound drainage
  9. Persistent cough
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