You’ve found a surgeon to replace your worn-out knees or hips, and you’ve scheduled your joint replacement surgery. You’ve taken the pre-surgery class at the hospital, read all you can and talked to others who have gone before you. Still, you may feel trepidation. Will you bounce back quickly, or struggle to get on your feet again? That’s a good question. If you want a speedy recovery and an overall successful outcome, you need to do more than just bank on the skills of your surgeon and hope for the best. You need to get in shape with pre-hab before your surgery.

“Fifty percent of outcome success is due to the surgeon, and the other 50 percent is due to the patient’s commitment to recovery – starting with pre-hab,” says Vonda Wright, MD, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Sports Medicine.

Rehabilitation is an exercise and therapy program performed for up to three months after surgery, and most joint-replacement patients know to expect it. Pre-habilitation – “pre-hab” for short – is an exercise therapy program started at least six weeks (and preferably longer) before surgery. It’s a new concept to many.

“Pre-hab makes a huge difference in our patients’ outcomes,” says orthopedic surgeon Hal Crane, MD, founding medical director of the Rose Institute for Joint Replacement at the Rose Medical Center in Denver. “They get vertical sooner and recover faster.”

Effectiveness of pre-hab

Just how effective is pre-hab? A study at New England Baptist Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, all in Boston, found that knee- and hip-replacement surgery patients who had participated in water- and land-based strength training, and aerobic and flexibility exercises for just six weeks prior to their surgeries reduced their odds of needing inpatient rehabilitation by 73 percent.

“Even in a fairly brief time period, the exercise paid off for the participants,” says lead study author Daniel Rooks, PHD, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Their level of function and pain stabilized prior to surgery, whereas those who did not exercise got worse. The benefits of exercise before surgery are very clear: the more you can do for yourself physically before surgery, the better off you will be.”

Back on your feet faster

The rewards of pre-hab show in the first 24 hours after surgery. After knee-replacement surgery, for example, patients are expected to be walking (using crutches or a walker) to the bathroom or in the hallway the day after. They generally must be able to go up and down two to four steps and walk 50 to 100 feet before leaving the hospital (usually in three to five days). The improved strength that people gain from pre-hab can help them achieve some of those milestones in less time, says Dr. Crane.