Kate Thomas, pre-op fitness researcher

The University of Otago’s Dr Kate Thomas has just been awarded an HRC Emerging Researcher First Grant for her project, ‘Optimisation of pre-operative cardiovascular fitness: The heat vs. HIIT study’.

The grant of just under $250,000 has been awarded for the study, which will take three years. The research will look at the best way to help those with osteoarthritis get fit before knee or hip replacement surgery.

Those awaiting hip and knee joint replacement surgery often struggle to take part in traditional exercise regimes, due to pain and limited mobility. While on the waiting list for surgery, their fitness, functional capacity and quality of life can deteriorate.

Better fitness reduces the risk of surgical complications and improves recovery. This project aims to test and compare two interventions: heat therapy and upper-limb high-intensity interval exercise (HIIT), prior to surgery, to enhance fitness, physical capacity and cardiovascular health, thereby improving surgical outcomes.

Kate Thomas was born in Zimbabwe and did her undergraduate degree in Exercise Physiology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. She has been working in health research since moving to New Zealand in 2006.

While there have been many studies on how to improve pre-operative fitness, these interventions in osteoarthritis patients have never been studied before. Ninety people will take part in the study, with each person typically being involved for about 12 weeks. The heat therapy intervention will consist of taking a spa followed by some light resistance exercise, and the HIIT consists of high-intensity exercise using predominantly the arms, explains Thomas. Sessions will be performed three times per week and these will both be compared with a group who undergo usual care.

“Whilst waiting for surgical intervention – which can be months – pain, immobility and quality of life can worsen, which may impact on a person’s ability to remain active and maintain physical fitness. These proposed strategies will hopefully allow those with lower-limb limitations an opportunity to benefit from cardiovascular conditioning, without the pain typically associated with lower-limb exercise.”

Thomas advises interested health practitioners and the general public to wait until both treatments are tested and proven safe before trying heat or HIIT. While she doesn’t know which treatment will be more effective, or if they will be of equal or no benefit, she is very much looking forward to doing the research with her team and finding out.

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