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Each year, around 900,000 people in the United States are affected by pulmonary embolism and deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which are conditions involving blood clots.

Though there are many causes of blood clots, living a sedentary lifestyle may increase your risk of developing them and therefore staying physically active may be a form of protection.

However, if you’ve recently experienced a pulmonary embolism, it’s important to recover before resuming or beginning an exercise program. This may leave you wondering when the right time to exercise is during your pulmonary embolism recovery.

This article tells you all you need to know about exercising during recovery from a pulmonary embolism, including its safety and the best exercises.

A pulmonary embolism is a blockage of one of the pulmonary arteries in the lungs. It’s often caused by a blood clot (thrombus) that develops in a blood vessel, breaks off, and travels to the lungs. Air bubbles, tumors, and other debris can also cause this blockage.

Usually, blood clots that cause a pulmonary embolism originate in the lower extremities, such as the calves and thighs, due to a condition known as DVT in which blood clots develop in deep veins.

Most commonly, DVT occurs in the lower legs. Symptoms of DVT include leg pain, swelling, soreness or tenderness, discoloration, and warmth in the legs.

When blood flow is blocked in the lungs, it can cause symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain, lightheadedness or dizziness, low blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, heart palpitations, sweating, and anxiousness.

Due to the severity of these symptoms, it’s crucial that you get immediate medical attention if you’re experiencing any unexplained shortness of breath or chest pain.

Resuming exercise after a pulmonary embolism is important as it can help prevent another one from happening. Additionally, exercise can further strengthen your heart and improve circulation, which are both important for preventing recurrent pulmonary embolisms.

“Once you have been cleared for activity by your pulmonologist and or cardiologist, low level exercise is extremely beneficial for recovery following pulmonary embolism,” says physical therapist Dr. Jason Schuster, owner of Intricate Art Spine & Body Solutions.

That said, it’s important that you don’t immediately jump back into an exercise program before receiving clearance from a healthcare professional. Until then, it’s important to take it easy and do light activity (e.g., light housework, gentle walking).

As long as you’ve been cleared for exercise, research suggests it’s safe to gradually introduce it back into your life.

However, up to 50% of people who’ve had a pulmonary embolism report having chronic functional limitations, which may mean that you could quickly become short of breath or easily fatigued during exercise. As you continue to exercise and recover, you may find that some symptoms lessen.

Additionally, a healthcare professional may prescribe you a blood thinner or anticoagulant, which helps to improve blood flow and prevent blood clots.

Deciding which exercise is best for you will depend on your recovery, the severity of the embolism, and other factors, such as concurrent medical treatments.

“The best ones to start with are mild exercises that are also easily managed and progressed,” says Kristopher Ceniza, a physical therapist, a trainer, and the manager for KneeForce.

In the very early stages of recovery, Ceniza suggests simple tasks such as “walking from [the] bed to the door, then gradually progress[ing] further [to] ankle raises and ankle pumps to promote circulation from the legs back to the heart.”

As a person gradually recovers and is cleared for exercise, Schuster recommends “low level, nonresistant exercise, walking on level surfaces, stationary bikes, bodyweight exercises, etc.,” which help to promote blood flow without too much strain on the body.

“When the patient has raised [their] conditioning enough, swimming and strength training could also be implemented,” says Ceniza.

Though each person’s abilities will vary, it’s generally recommended to start with walking as your main form of exercise, gradually increasing from a few minutes to upwards of 30 minutes per day. Here’s an example:

  • Week 1: Walking for 5 minutes, 2 to 4 times per day
  • Week 2: Walking for 10 minutes, 2 to 4 times per day
  • Week 3: Walking for 15 to 20 minutes, 1 to 2 times per day
  • Week 4: Walking for 30+ minutes, once per day

Though useful as a guide, it’s important to work closely with a healthcare professional and make adjustments as needed. For some, rehabilitation may take longer; others may be able to resume activity more quickly.

As you begin to feel stronger, you can gradually increase other forms of activity, such as strength training and higher intensity exercise.

The length of recovery time is unique to the individual who has experienced a pulmonary embolism. Therefore, there’s no specific timeframe in which a person is expected to be ready to exercise.

“Once the embolism is cleared, low grade exercise is typically part of the rehab protocol. The intensity/frequency depends on if you meet certain markers that indicate it is safe to perform certain activity,” says Schuster.

According to a 2020 pilot study, patients were able to safely begin or return to low or moderate intensity exercise as early as 4 weeks after they had a pulmonary embolism.

“Common sense is necessary. Only do exercises that are not physically taxing and take plenty of rest in between each bout of exercise,” says Ceniza.

“Start by walking to nearby places. As a start, the nearer the better. If that means walking only from your couch to your room, that’s fine. Do this several times a day. When you get more comfortable, gradually increase the distance you’re walking,” Ceniza adds.

Since each person will recover differently, it’s crucial to get clearance from a healthcare professional before returning to exercise.

“If you have a blood clot, you need to get it taken care of ASAP. You should not exercise until you have been seen by a medical doctor,” Schuster warns.

Once the blood clot has cleared and you’ve received clearance from a healthcare professional, then you can gradually start to increase your physical activity. But the amount will depend on where you are in your recovery.

“The more consistent the exercise, the better. That means the patient will be better off if they can [move their body] multiple times a day, every day, for at least the next few weeks. But, again, only do what’s comfortable,” Ceniza adds.

Considering the risk of DVT may be worsened by prolonged sitting, it’s important to frequently move your body and avoid being in one position for too long. For example, try to get up and walk a few times per day, even just for a few minutes, to improve blood flow.

Once you’re fully recovered, you may return to your usual exercise routine as long as it’s cleared by a healthcare professional.

If you’re new to exercise, you may wish to consult a qualified healthcare professional, such as a physical therapist, who can design a customized exercise plan for you.

If you’re currently recovering from a pulmonary embolism and wonder if you can start exercising, here are some important considerations and suggestions:

  • Get medical clearance: Before starting exercise, it’s important to get clearance from a healthcare professional. Your body needs time for healing, which may be hindered if you push yourself too hard.
  • Listen to your body: If you’re struggling with exercise, lower the intensity. This will ensure you’re exercising at a pace that you can safely tolerate.
  • Start slowly: It may be tempting to return to vigorous activity, but your body may need more time to recover before it can tolerate high volumes of physical activity.
  • All activity counts: If you’re only able to walk for a few minutes before feeling fatigued, don’t worry. Any movement is beneficial for your body, and it can add up.
  • Be patient: Your body just went through a traumatic and stressful event. Be patient and allow it to heal.
  • Take your medication: If a healthcare professional prescribed medication, such as a blood thinner, it’s important to take it. Exercise isn’t a stand-alone treatment for DVT or pulmonary embolisms.
  • Wear compression socks: Compression socks help to promote blood flow in the lower extremities. In some cases, a healthcare professional may recommend wearing compression socks during or outside of physical activity.

Do lungs heal after a pulmonary embolism?

After pulmonary embolism, you may have a full recovery or experience some permanent damage. The amount of damage to the lungs depends on a variety of factors, such as the amount of tissue damage caused by a lack of oxygen.

A healthcare professional can help you understand the level of damage to your lungs and discuss appropriate treatments.

How long does it take for a pulmonary embolism to dissolve?

One review found that resolution from a pulmonary embolism was 24% after 3 to 7 days, 47% after 8 to 21 days, and 78% after 22 to 90 days.

“[Recovery time] depends from person to person. Full recovery from pulmonary embolism can take weeks for some; months for others,” says Ceniza.

Can you exercise on blood thinners?

Yes, you can exercise on blood thinners. Blood thinners are often prescribed for the first few months after a pulmonary embolism, and it’s generally considered safe to exercise while on this medication.

However, a healthcare professional may suggest you avoid vigorous activity or contact sports due to risk of bleeding. For personalized recommendations, it’s best to consult a healthcare professional.

If you’ve experienced a pulmonary embolism, returning to exercise can be a scary and confusing experience.

Once you’ve recovered and have been cleared by a healthcare professional, you can slowly start to exercise again. It’s usually recommended to start with a few minutes of walking each day and gradually increase your time as you become stronger.

As long as it’s done safely, exercising after a pulmonary embolism may help to prevent another one from occurring and help build back your strength.

That said, always be sure to work closely with a healthcare professional to ensure you’re giving yourself enough time to recover before returning to exercise.