Physical activity and sport post lung transplant

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Learn about the important role physical activity plays in improving the social, emotional and physical health of children who have had a lung transplant.

Key points

  • Playing and being physically active are important parts of a child’s motor and social development and have positive impacts on overall health.
  • Children with lung transplant are encouraged to participate in physical activity and sport.
  • Physical activity can help to address some of the side effects associated with post-transplant treatments.
  • Full physical activity can typically resume 6 weeks after transplant surgery with the exception of contact sports.
  • Competitive contact sports are generally not recommended due to side effects of medication but should be discussed with your child’s transplant team for specific recommendations.
  • After lung transplant it is important to incorporate a warm-up and cool-down into exercise routines.

Regardless of your child’s age, living with a lung transplant will require lifelong management. Your child will need to practice a number of healthy habits to keep their lungs and body working well into adulthood. One of these important health habits is physical activity.

Why should my child be physically active after having a lung transplant?

Before their lung transplant, your child may have felt tired and weak, making it more difficult for them to be physically active. After transplant, children often find that they have more energy and want to be active again. Your child is encouraged to participate in regular physical activity, as it is an important part of staying healthy.

Regular physical activity can help to:

  • Build and strengthen muscles and bones, and improve the function of the heart and lungs
  • Minimize some of the potential side effects associated with post-transplant medications
  • Decrease the risk of preventable chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity
  • Maximize bone health
  • Increase energy and endurance for everyday activities
  • Improve self-esteem and school performance, and decrease depression and anxiety
  • Increase social opportunities and allow children "just to be kids!"

For more details on the benefits of physical activity, see Physical activity: Benefits of exercise for health and wellbeing.

The importance of learning how to play

Developing fundamental movement skills

It is important that children learn and improve their fundamental gross motor skills including running, jumping, hopping and skipping. Physical activity provides an opportunity to practice these skills and to spend time playing with family and friends. Learning these skills helps children to feel confident and competent while playing with their friends and family at home, in the park and at school.

It is important to remember that not all children will learn these skills at the same time or in the same way. However, given the opportunity to participate, children post-transplant can develop their motor skills like any other child, ensuring that they get the social, physical and mental health benefits of physical activity participation.

If your child is younger than 5 years old, supervised floor- and home-based play provide opportunities to participate in physical activity. If your child is school-aged, gym class, recess and after-school programs offer important opportunities to participate in physical activity. Your child’s transplant team can provide guidance to the school if staff have concerns or questions related to physical activity and transplant.

How soon should my child start exercising after a lung transplant?

The table below outlines the general recommendations your child should follow for physical activity after a lung transplant. You and your child can work with an occupational therapist or physiotherapist can help give you an activity or exercise plan.

Children are resilient and generally can do whatever they are comfortable doing after having a lung transplant. For the first few weeks of their recovery post-transplant, their chest is healing and it is important to follow sternal precautions. In addition, your team may have some specific recommendations about activities that may involve exposure to things that may irritate their lungs, for example swimming in a lake. If in doubt – ask your team.

The transplant team is there to help, and you should check with them if you have questions or concerns about specific sports or activities.

TimeActivities allowedActivities not allowed
First few weeks after surgery

For infants:

  • Practice skills such as sitting, rolling and standing to ensure they continue to meet their developmental milestones

For children:

  • Build stamina by walking every day
  • Build up to more energetic activities such as light chores, bike riding, playing active games
  • Slowly add activities to your child’s routine each day as long as they are feeling well
  • Cardio exercises such as running, biking, swimming
  • Contact sports
6 weeks after surgeryNormal exercise and physical activity including running, jumping, swimming and dancing Contact sports
3 months after surgery Participation in contact sports should be approved by and discussed with your child’s transplant team

How much physical activity does my child need after having a lung transplant?

Current guidelines recommend that infants should have supervised floor-based play several times a day, while toddlers and preschoolers should participate in 180 minutes (3 hours) of physical activity throughout the day. Children between the ages of 5 and 17 years old should participate in 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity every day. This should include:

  • A variety of aerobic activities
  • Muscle strengthening exercises at least 3 days per week
  • Bone building exercises at least 3 days per week

Your child should build up to this level of activity gradually after a lung transplant.

The Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for the Early Years (0-4 years) and for Children and Youth (age 5 to 17 years) provide more detail on the recommended levels of physical activity, including rest and relaxation, for a child’s entire day.

To learn about aerobic and strengthening activities, see Physical activity: Guidelines for children and teens.

Helping your child be physically active after a lung transplant

It is natural to be protective of your child post-transplant. They have undergone a major procedure, and they will need time to heal. However, physical activity plays an important role in their recovery.

To establish a physical activity routine for your child post-transplant, make sure they are engaging in activities they enjoy. Enjoyment is one of the main motivators for physical activity participation in children, so encourage your child to try a variety of activities and sports to help them to discover what they enjoy the most.

Parents can support their child’s participation by:

  • Setting an example—being physically active themselves, and playing/participating with their child
  • Developing a family media (screen time) plan that prioritizes physical activity over screens
  • Helping them with transportation to and from physical activities/sports
  • Encouraging them to talk about their positive experiences and supporting their choices
  • Giving them toys that promote physical activity (balls, hula hoops, skateboards, Frisbees, etc.) instead of video games
  • Signing them up for a physical activity or sport with a friend at their school or in the community
  • Encouraging them to walk to school or to the store, instead of getting a ride

For more ideas on getting school-aged children physically active, take a look at Health Canada's physical activity tips for 5- to 11-year-olds and 12- to 17-year-olds.​

Last updated: June 4th 2021