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How to recover from a health setback

Patsy Westcott
Article written by Patsy Westcott

Date published 18 January 2022

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Even the fittest people can experience a health setback, but it doesn't have to knock you for six. Here's how to get back to doing the things you love.

By watching our diet, exercising regularly and making time to rest and relax, we can boost our chances of staying healthy, but no matter how well we look after ourselves, none of us are immune to health problems.

Health events – like a heart attack, stroke or cancer diagnosis – can happen to any of us; Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, legendary for his clean lifestyle and stamina, had to have heart surgery. Olympic sprinter, Michael Jordan, suffered an unexpected stroke. Fitness guru Jane Fonda is a survivor of breast cancer.


There's no doubt that such setbacks are life-changing, but they don't have to put you out of the game. As Jordan, once dubbed 'the fastest man on earth' told BBC Breakfast, "It's been the most significant event in my life, but what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. It didn't kill me, and so I'm sitting here stronger today."

Physiotherapist Ashley James, who leads courses in resilience for people recovering from mental health and musculoskeletal problems for IPRS Health, agrees, saying, "The body is remarkably robust and adaptable. I never tell anyone they can't do anything."

With time and support to regain physical and emotional strength, you can come back from virtually anything.


The first thing to recognise is that recovery starts before the onset of a problem. If you're lined up for surgery, your surgeon may suggest prehabilitation to give you a head start.

This usually covers diet and exercise, getting medication for existing health problems and addressing drinking and smoking (alcohol pre-surgery can delay recovery, while smoking increases the risks of anaesthesia and delays wound healing). As James puts it, "The stronger you are going in, the stronger you will be coming out."

Of course, some health problems, such as a heart attack, stroke or cancer diagnoses, are totally unexpected – but it's still the case, says British Heart Foundation cardiac nurse Ashleigh Li, that "Previous fitness will still stand you in good stead. Patients who are fitter to begin with bounce back quicker."

Be active

There was a time when rest was obligatory when recovering from an illness or operation. Not any more, says Ashleigh Li. "We now know recovery is faster the quicker a patient is up and about. Moving and walking are key to re-inflating your lungs, helping to reduce the chance of chest infection."

Once past the immediate aftermath, building regular activity into your life is vital. Setting goals will help you stay motivated and measure progress, says Ashley James. "It can be anything from running a 10k to playing with the grandchildren. It's about finding what matters to you."

Man walking with his grandson on rural path

Rather than extended periods of rest, your doctor may recommend that you get back to gentle activities.

What to eat

The disease process uses up energy and while you're confined to bed, lean tissue can be depleted within a scarily short time.

You need sufficient calories to support healing as well as high-quality protein foods; think fish, lean meat, nuts, seeds, pulses and eggs, and perhaps a protein supplement to repair damaged tissues and avoid permanent loss of muscle and strength.

In addition, aim for at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day as well as dairy foods or dairy substitutes to supply vitamins, minerals and plant chemicals.

Water helps to transport much-needed nutrients to the body's cells so stay hydrated, too.

Be kind to yourself

A health crisis can damage confidence, so cut yourself some slack. As Georgina Wiley, Treatment and Recovery Adviser at Macmillan Cancer Support, observes, "A cancer diagnosis can turn your life upside down in a single moment. Some days you will feel better than others. But even when you have finished treatment you need time to process what you have been through."

It is essential to have time and space to reflect on what has happened and find its meaning.

Talk about it

Joining a disease-specific support group can help. According to Ashley James, "People talk about getting on with life, but that doesn't mean going it alone. Resilient people share more and engage more in social situations; anything from talking to friends or a health care professional, to joining a book club or gardening group."

Where to find help

Heart problem? The British Heart Foundation can provide encouragement and advice.

Stroke? Visit the Stroke Association for inspiration on life after stroke.

Cancer? Head to Macmillan Cancer Support for support and advice.

Joint problems? Versus Arthritis provides advice and more information about what's going on in your area.

Need a physio? Visit the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy.

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Patsy Westcott

About Patsy Westcott

Patsy Westcott MSc is a freelance writer specialising in health and nutrition, and writes regularly for various print and online publications. She has a Master's degree in Nutritional Medicine and has contributed to more than 40 health and nutrition books.