Can You Play Sports After a Transplant?

25th March 2020
Playing sports after a transplant is not only possible, but also recommended. In addition to the scientific studies that back up this statement, there are also several associations of transplant athletes around the world.

The decision to play sports after a transplant is not an easy one. Even though we understand and assume that exercise is always good, there are still reservations when it comes to someone who has undergone an organ transplant.

Both the patient and their relatives can oppose the idea of playing sports, assuming that it’ll generate unnecessary risk. They may also fear the hits and traumas that it may cause.

The truth is that transplant recipients are people with sports limitations that aren’t necessarily that different from those of the majority of the population. Even though it depends on the organ in question, the state of health of the individual, and the sport of choice, there are also several factors in common with those that influence a person without a transplant to play sports.

Of course, it’s recommended to avoid contact sports (rugby or soccer), seek the advice of a doctor, and more importantly, choose a sport that you enjoy. We can’t ignore the emotional component of playing sports, which is just as important as the physical one.

When starting to play a sport after a transplant, the body feels the need to adapt to a routine. If you follow a guided and supervised progression, you can even consider participating in tournaments and competitions.

On the other hand, in medical terms, exercise is a great protective factor against cardiovascular diseases. Among transplant recipients, heart problems are the main cause of death. Supposedly, one of the factors that cause this heart-related mortality is a sedentary lifestyle.

The benefits of playing sports after a transplant

Some studies claim that playing sports after a transplant is more beneficial for those who were sedentary than for those who were already active. This is clear proof that there are benefits to playing sports after a transplant.

A man standing near the elypticals at the gym

As we already know, sports are a cardiovascular protector because they lower the levels of blood sugar and cholesterol. In transplant recipients who consume immunosuppressants, any exercise would help to decrease the adverse effects of these drugs which act by raising sugar and lipid levels, to a certain extent.

Transplant recipients also get corticosteroids in relatively high doses and on a regular basis. Osteoporosis, a decrease in bone density, is among the adverse effects of corticosteroids. In contrast, sports help to strengthen the musculoskeletal system.

We also can’t ignore the social benefit of playing sports after a transplant. Belonging to a group, meeting with other people and leaving the house are actions that promote human contact, which is also rehabilitative. The effect is even greater if the socializing happens among other transplanted athletes.

When should transplant patients start exercising?

It’s impossible to start physical exercise immediately after transplant surgery. There are necessary adaptations and changes that require a reasonable waiting time.

Not all transplants are the same. Similarly, no one responds identically to the adaptation process. Generally, recovery goes on for about six months after the surgery, although this can vary. It should always be a doctor who decides to speed up or delay the wait.

Once they give the athlete the green light to play sports, the first attempts should be light; avoid any overstraining. As the months go by, the athlete can increase the intensity and frequency.

Types of training for transplant recipients

Athletes know that not all sports are equal and that not all workouts have the same objective. There are exercises to improve strength and exercises to increase endurance; there are aerobic and anaerobic exercises as well.

For transplant recipients who need to have long bed rest after surgery, strength training would be important. This way, they can recover some muscle mass and strengthen their bone tissue.

Given that there’s a considerable and constant increase in weight among transplant recipients, playing sports after a transplant would reduce weight gain and help to maintain it on a healthy range. You can accomplish this with strength training and aerobic exercises.

Furthermore, aerobic training can also help with muscle hypertrophy. When the muscle increases its diameter, it improves the nerve transmission inside it, which in turn helps with the sensitivity. We must remember that transplant recipients must take prescribed corticosteroids that can damage their nerve endings.

An older woman playing tennis after a transplant

Finally, there’s also resistance training. This modality boosts oxygenation and reduces inflammatory substances in the body. With less inflammation, the transplant recipient feels less pain; with more oxygen, there’s a lower cardiovascular risk.

Sports after a transplant: the conclusion

Playing sports after a transplant is definitely recommended. Each medical team must advise the patient about which exercises are best and when to start them.

The possibility of playing sports is essential, and friends and family should be a part of the decision. On top of proper monitoring and medication, sports are a protective factor to extend the survival of these patients.

  • M.T. Tomás, H. Santa-Clara, E. Monteiro, E. Barroso, L.B. Sardinha. Effects of an exercise training program in physical condition after liver transplantation in familial amyloidotic polyneuropathy: A case report. Transplant Proc, 43 (2011), pp. 257-258.
  • Slapak, M. “Sport and transplantation.” Annals of transplantation 10.1 (2005): 60-67.
  • Mathur, S., Janaudis‐Ferreira, T., Wickerson, L., Singer, L. G., Patcai, J., Rozenberg, D., … & High, K. (2014). Meeting report: consensus recommendations for a research agenda in exercise in solid organ transplantation. American Journal of Transplantation, 14(10), 2235-2245.