There are many different reasons to commit to regular exercise. For many, obviously, keeping fit is part of a healthy lifestyle. Others may stick to their exercise routine for the mental health benefits, or because it’s part of their social life.

And for some, regular exercise is, quite simply, essential. It’s certainly true for West End star Zoe Birkett.

That’s because Zoe is one of the youngest people in the UK to have had hip replacement surgery – and exercise is the key to her recovery, and therefore to her career.

“I have to maintain fitness to continue living my dream,” she says. “I’ve accepted that I have to exercise every week, even on holiday, because I’ll do everything I can to keep healthy.”

At the age of 13, Zoe had three metal pins in her hip. Despite that, she was an active teenager, doing all different kinds of dance classes, which helped her to pursue her performance dreams. After reaching the finals of Pop Idol, she enjoyed a hugely successful musical theatre career, taking to the stage in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Bodyguard and Bake Off: The Musical, among other productions.

And yet, all that time, Zoe was living with a very painful condition, and was diagnosed with osteoarthritis at age 33.

“By 35 I couldn’t tie up my own shoes because of osteoarthritis,” she says.

She’d reached the point of needing a hip replacement – and she’d just landed a leading role in Moulin Rouge! The Musical in London’s West End.

“The role involved doing loads of can-can kicks and cartwheels,” Zoe says. “Before the operation, I had to show the surgeon the type of dance moves I’d be doing, so he knew what I’d be aiming for.

“I had just three months to recover before rehearsals started.”

Zoe’s hip replacement recovery

Zoe Birkett in a yellow bikini.

Zoe’s recovery began before the surgery had even taken place.

“I had to train really hard before my operation, because being stronger pre-op would help with my recovery afterwards,” she says. “I got a personal trainer and focused on strengthening my glutes.”

Zoe had an anterior hip replacement – that is, through the front of the hip – using a flexible, hard-wearing titanium socket and stem.

After the operation, Zoe committed to a routine that was initially more gentle but required a lot of consistency.

“At the beginning I was trying to stand holding a mop for balance, and doing basic movements with my feet,” she says. “After two weeks, I started doing resistance band work.

“I also did two hours of walking a day – not continuously to start with, I’d do half an hour at a time, come home, rest, and then go out again.”

To help her recovery, Zoe’s husband turned their garage into a home gym, and she started using an exercise bike for low-impact, joint-friendly cardio. Eventually, she added weights to her fitness routine, and began skipping.

Two years on, Zoe’s still performing on stage, including a full-on dance role in The Witches at the National Theatre – and she says she’s fitter than ever before. A house move means she no longer has a home gym, so she plans to maintain that fitness by spending plenty of time at her local David Lloyd club.

“Technically I’m still in recovery, and I’m determined to keep my body healthy,” she says. “I’ll be doing a lot of swimming because it’s good for the hips.”

As well as supporting her health and career, Zoe hopes that her commitment to exercise will inspire her young daughter.

“I want my daughter to know that caring for her body is so important,” says Zoe. “It’s important she sees that I can do anything despite the fact I’ve been through something major.”  

Zoe Birkett is a Charity Ambassador for Arthritis Action.

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