Exercise and Bariatric Surgery for Maximising Weight Loss and Health

by | Nov 21, 2023 | Bariatric Exercise

Understand exercise and bariatric surgery

Combining exercise with weight loss surgery can have profound effects on weight loss outcomes and overall health. In this comprehensive article, I’ll explain the important link between exercise and bariatric surgery. Looking at the timing of exercise post-surgery, the benefits of tailored exercise programs, the importance of incidental activity, and the significance of consistency in daily exercise routines.

In this article:

Understanding the importance of exercise for bariatric patients

  • Losing muscle mass
  • Loss of bone mass
  • Comorbidities

Incorporating exercise after weight loss surgery

  • When and how to start exercise
  • Gradually increase activity levels
  • A cookie cutter approach doesn’t work
  • The importance of resistance training

The power of incidental activity

  • Unleashing the potential of everyday movement
  • 10 daily activities to turn into purposeful exercise

Consistency is key

  • Any exercise is better than none
  • Breaking down movement into achievable segments

Understanding the importance of exercise for bariatric patients

The risk of injury, potential embarrassment, lack of motivation, or feeling out of shape can all make the idea of working out seem daunting in the beginning. For many people, those initial few months after surgery also spark rapid weight loss. Those aspects combined can leave people reluctant to work out. So why bother starting an exercise program? There are many important reasons.

In the first 12 months after surgery, you may experience significant weight loss, but along with shedding the kilos, you’ll also lose muscle and bone mass.

Losing muscle mass

The bariatric patient loses muscle mass because the severe calorie restriction takes the body into a catabolic state. In this state, the body tends to lose both fat and muscle. It is important to exercise to counteract this. Continuing to build and maintain muscle mass will support you to lose weight when the initial weight loss period is over, since muscle mass reduces fat and supports the metabolic rate.

Loss of bone mass

Bone mass is lost due to nutritional deficiencies from restricted calorie intake. In fact, postmenopausal women who undergo weight loss surgery have a 7% chance of experiencing a long bone fracture due to osteoporosis or osteopenia.

The good news is, that regular weight-bearing exercise can help the post-bariatric body stay healthy, counteracting both muscle and bone mass loss.


If you have comorbidities (other health conditions alongside obesity), exercise becomes even more critical on your path to wellness. Engaging in regular physical activity can help reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Furthermore, exercise plays a role in increasing bone density, improving biomechanics, and promoting joint stability.

So, when it comes to exercise, remember it’s not just about shedding pounds but also about preserving muscle and bone strength, reducing the risk of chronic illnesses, and boosting overall well-being. Get moving and experience the amazing benefits of exercise on your weight loss journey!

swimming as exercise after bariatric surgery_

Incorporating exercise after weight loss surgery

When and how to start exercise

Weight loss surgery is major surgery, and you should take it slowly in the first few weeks. You can liken this to the way you’re introducing food to your diet. Gently does it!

Start with short walks in the early days after surgery – usually 10-15 minutes at a gentle pace. This movement will help post-op to reduce the risk of blood clots, and help recover normal bowel function as quickly as possible.

If you’ve had a laparoscopic procedure, you should be ready to start gentle, regular exercise after a couple of weeks. You can check in with your surgeon to be sure.

Gradually increase activity levels

Your surgeon will give you clearance to increase your exercise once your wounds have healed. From here, it’s all about finding a level of movement that lightly challenges you and increasing this over time. This might be walks, or swimming (a great choice to reduce the risk of injury and minimise joint pain).

A cookie cutter approach doesn’t work

Having the right support to exercise safely and effectively is essential. A cookie-cutter exercise routine rarely works in the early days after bariatric surgery. To start with, you need expert help from an exercise physiologist to structure a safe, challenging, yet enjoyable exercise routine for you. They will help you determine the right exercises for your unique body type and incorporate your lifestyle. With a unique way of determining what is going to work best for you and your body for right now. Taking into consideration all of those things that might have held you back in the past. They might work with you to counteract past injuries, look at your anatomical structure, and work with your current weight and muscle tone.

The importance of resistance training

Resistance training is weight bearing exercise that builds muscle mass and strengthens bone mass. It doesn’t always have to involve weights, but it can do. Think squats, lunges, push-ups, yoga, as well as exercises using resistance bands or machines such as in pilates. Of course, we also have strength training with machines, dumbbells, or free weights.

Whatever your choice of resistance training, make sure it is right for you, and check back in regularly as you lose weight and as your body changes and adapts.


incidental activity walking up stairs_

The power of incidental activity

Unleashing the potential of everyday movement

To keep your weight loss journey on track, it’s crucial to keep moving. A simple yet effective trick to increase your daily physical activity levels is to focus on increasing your incidental activity.

Incidental activity refers to those activities that we naturally engage in as part of our everyday lives. They are unplanned and just happen during our daily routines. The beauty of incidental activity is that it can significantly contribute to your overall physical activity without requiring any extra time or effort. It’s all about finding opportunities to infuse a little more movement into your daily life.

10 daily activities to turn into purposeful exercise

Let’s explore some tips to make your ordinary activities more purposeful and boost your incidental activity levels.

  1. Struggle to get up in the morning? Put your phone on the other side of the room to charge at night. This forces you to get up to turn your alarm off, then oila – you’re up!
  2. When grocery shopping, park your car further away to increase your walk time. When you get home, you can also make more trips to and from the car by taking one bag at a time.
  3. You can do the same with washing, taking small loads to the line at a time.
  4. Do some kitchen exercises while you wait for the toaster to pop, or the microwave to finish.
  5. Use the ad break while you’re watching TV to add in a short exercise routine, instead of scrolling on social media.
  6. If your work requires you to sit at a desk, you can choose to stand instead of sit (there are plenty of desks to accommodate this now). You can also use your lunch break to take a stroll – which is also great for digestion.
  7. Take the stairs instead of the lift or escalator.
  8. Consider walking or riding to your destination instead of using the car. Or park a reasonable distance and walk the rest of the way.
  9. If you’re meeting a friend, why not choose to go for a walk with takeaway coffee instead of sitting in? Or organise an outdoor setting like a park where you will have the opportunity to move around?
  10. When you take a call on your mobile, get into the habit of taking a walk around instead of sitting or standing still.

Consistency is key

Any exercise is better than none

We understand that some days the likelihood of achieving your exercise goals varies. Sometimes you have 1 hour, sometimes you don’t. Rather than getting down on yourself for not achieving your 30 minutes or 1 hour per day, why not make a deal with yourself to do at least some exercise every day no matter what?

Sometimes I find this approach is much less daunting, and just getting into the habit of exercising every day is really beneficial. Who knows you may even find after a little while, you’re up to 1 hour each day and enjoying it!

Remember, if you have been inactive for a very long time, any exercise you do will have a positive impact on your fitness. So don’t get down on yourself, just commit to moving more, every day if you can, and you’ll be on your way to better health in no time.

Breaking down movement into achievable segments

Whether you’re exercising at the gym or adding up incidental activity, it helps to count up movement across all activities. It all counts! Trying for 1 hour of movement a day, whatever is a great approach.

One approach is to break up your exercise sessions into shorter, more manageable 10-minute segments. Trust me, everyone can find 10 minutes to spare during their day. In fact, studies are starting to show that these quick bursts of activity can be just as effective, if not better, than a single 30-minute session in terms of health benefits.

Here are some 10-minute workout ideas that you can adapt to your fitness level:

  • Grab a skipping rope and get jumping.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator.
  • Enjoy a brisk walk around the block.
  • Create a mini-circuit at home with exercises like squats, planks, lunges, and sit-ups.
    Put on some music and have a dance workout in your living room.
  • Engage in a friendly game of soccer with your kids.
  • Hop on your bike for a short ride in the neighborhood.

Every day is a great day to exercise!

By utilising the potential of exercise and bariatric surgery, you can enhance weight loss outcomes, improve muscle tone, strengthen your body, and reap the long-term health benefits. Whether through tailored exercise programs, incidental activities, or consistent daily movement, exercise acts as a catalyst for lasting weight loss and overall well-being. Embrace the journey, consult with experts, and let exercise become an integral part of your post-surgery lifestyle for a healthier, happier you.

Disclaimer: This article is of a general nature for educational purposes only, and is not a substitute for medical advice. A 1:1 consultation with a medical professional is always the best approach in order to receive accurate information which is tailored to your individual situation. 

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About Dr Garth McLeod

Dr Garth McLeod is a Sunshine Coast General and Bariatric Surgeon. He is a Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (FRACS) in general surgery, with subspecialty training in obesity and metabolic surgery. Dr McLeod adopts a whole-patient approach to bariatric care with a multidisciplinary team