BACKGROUND: Preoperative anxiety and physical unfitness have been shown to have adverse effects on recovery from cardiac surgery. This study involving cardiac surgery patients was primarily aimed at assessing the feasibility of delivering physical conditioning and stress reduction programs within the public hospital setting. Secondary aims were to evaluate the effect of these programs on quality of life (QOL), rates of postoperative atrial fibrillation (AF) and length of stay (LOS) in hospital. METHODS: Elective patients scheduled for coronary artery bypass graft and/or valve surgery at a public hospital in Melbourne, Australia were enrolled. Patients were randomized to receive either holistic therapy (HT) or usual care (UC). HT consisted of a series of light physical exercise sessions together with a mental stress reduction program administered in an outpatient setting for the first two weeks after placement on the waiting list for surgery. A self-administered SF-36 questionnaire was used to measure QOL and hospital records to collect data on LOS and rate of postoperative AF. RESULTS: The study population comprised 117 patients of whom 60 received HT and 57 received UC. Both programs were able to be delivered within the hospital setting but ongoing therapy beyond the two week duration of the program was not carried out due to long waiting periods and insufficient resources. HT, as delivered in this study, compared to UC did not result in significant changes in QOL, LOS or AF incidence. CONCLUSIONS: Preoperative holistic therapy can be delivered in the hospital setting, although two weeks is insufficient to provide benefits beyond usual care on QOL, LOS or postoperative AF. Further research is now required to determine whether a similar program of longer duration, or targeted to high risk patients can provide measurable benefits. TRIAL REGISTRATION: This trial was conducted as part of a larger study and according to the principles contained in the CONSORT statement 2001.