How to Exercise With Health Conditions
Learn about the benefits of exercise for everyone — even if you're not in perfect health.
By Barbara Robb
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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There are many benefits to be gained from regular exercise. It can lower blood pressure, improve heart function and blood sugar control, alleviate depression, ensure good sleep, decrease risk of cancer, and help manage weight, says Susan Joy, MD, director of the Women's Sports Health Program at the Cleveland Clinic.
Exercise Benefits for Every Body
Those benefits aren't limited to people who are able to exercise strenuously. Even a little bit of daily walking and physical activity has health benefits. As Dr. Joy says, "Physical activity is something everybody should build in, pretty much no matter what your health." People of all ages and levels of fitness can benefit from regular physical activity done at a moderate level of intensity.
If you have a disability, regular exercise may improve your ability to do everyday tasks. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has established physical activity guidelines for adults with disabilities, recommending at least 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity physical activity, as well as muscle-strengthening activities, when possible.
When to Talk With Your Doctor Before Exercising
If you're under age 35 and in good health, it's generally agreed that you can begin an exercise program without consulting a physician. If you don't have other health problems, you can safely start a slow, progressive exercise program even if you're overweight, says Joy. But obesity increases the risk of heart conditions, so see your doctor first if you're seriously overweight and you haven't already been screened for heart disease.
If you have a personal history of heart disease, take medication for a heart condition, or have a family history of heart disease in a first-degree relative (a parent, sibling, or child), you should talk with your doctor before beginning an exercise program. And so should older individuals — men over 40 and women over 50 — because the risk of heart disease increases with age.
You should also check with your doctor first if you have chronic pain due to a structural problem, such as a joint or spine disorder, or pain due to injury or surgery. You may need help from a trained fitness professional in designing an exercise program that can accommodate any range-of-motion limitations. You can also benefit from a professional’s guidance if you're planning a more vigorous exercise program designed to increase your strength or endurance.
Getting Started With Exercise
People sometimes overestimate their level of fitness and physical activity, says Joy. You need to honestly assess your fitness level, then work gradually to increase it. It's best to start slowly, to prevent injury. Overexertion isn't helpful, as it can have adverse effects. If you need to interrupt your exercise program because of illness, start at a lower level when you resume.
Exercise Safety Considerations
If you have health problems, you may want to consider wearing a medical alert bracelet and letting your exercise partners and health club staff know about your condition. Stop your workout if you experience chest pain, an irregular heartbeat, dizziness, nausea, or shortness of breath.
On the other hand, don't let fear of injury stop you from exercising. It's one of the most important things you can do to improve your health.
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