Fitness Articles

Exercise Safety Tips for Beginners

Ready, Set, Exercise!

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Congratulations! You’ve made the decision to incorporate regular exercise into your healthy lifestyle, and take advantage of the its numerous benefits. Smart move.

But like many good things, exercise can also be risky—especially if it’s been a while since you've worked up a sweat, or if you have any health conditions (including obesity) that could increase your risk of injury. So, it’s important to know how to keep yourself safe, and avoid potential problems before they happen. The following information should help you do exactly that.

Before You Start: Safety Precautions
If you are planning to increase your physical activity or start an exercise program, you start with a sedentary activity—answering a few short questions, that is. The PAR-Q (Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire) is the gold standard in fitness safety, used by doctors, trainers and health clubs the world over. Usually comprised of 5-7 questions, it can help rule out any underlying health concerns that could worsen with exercise. Answer yes or no to the following questions.
  1. Has your doctor ever said that you have a heart condition and that you should only do physical activity recommended by a doctor?
  2. Do you feel pain in your chest when you do physical activity?
  3. In the past month, have you had chest pain when you were not doing physical activity?
  4. Do you lose your balance because of dizziness or do you ever lose consciousness?
  5. Do you have a bone or joint problem (for example, back, knee, or hip) that could be made worse by a change in your physical activity?
  6. Is your doctor currently prescribing drugs (for example, water pills) for your blood pressure or heart condition?
  7. Do you know of any other reason why you should not do physical activity?
If you answer YES to any of the questions on this list, you must check in with your doctor and get cleared for exercise before you start. You can download or print a copy of the official PAR-Q form for your records, courtesy of the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) by clicking here. (This is a PDF document and you will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to open it.)

Likewise, if you have any chronic medical conditions (such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or arthritis) or risk factors (such as smoking or being more than 20 pounds overweight), and have not discussed exercising with your doctor, you should do so before beginning. Exercise is often an important part of the treatment for such conditions, but you may have some limitations or special needs that your doctor can tell you about.

And always remember the golden rule of exercise safety: start slowly, and build up the intensity and duration of your exercise gradually. Trying to make up for lost time, or go from couch potato to exercise maven overnight, is a prescription for problems.

Getting Started: The Right Gear
Many injuries and setbacks occur because people don’t take the time to get themselves well-equipped for their exercise. Make sure you:
  • Wear shoes that fit well and are capable of providing the right kind of support for your activity and body type. If you’re a runner or walker, get your feet and gait analyzed, and get the right type of shoe for you—this service is usually provided free by stores that specialize in running shoes. Read "If the Shoe Fits, Wear It!"
  • Wear appropriate exercise clothing. Fabrics that absorb sweat and remove it from your skin are best; loose-fitting, light weight cotton is also fine. Women should wear supportive sports bras. But no one should EVER wear rubber or plastic suits or belts—these prevent your body from dissipating heat properly and can lead to serious health risks from overheating and dehydration.
  • Use protective gear: helmets for biking or high-contact sports; knee and elbow pads for skating; reflective clothing and/or lights for evening exercise; sunglasses, sunscreen, and hats for outdoor exercise.
  • Avoid things like ankle and wrist weights. They can alter your normal movement patterns and increase the risk of injury. If you must add weight to your workout, a weighted vest helps distribute weight more evenly and allows you to move more freely and normally than weights attached to your extremities.
When to Stop: Warning Signs
A certain amount of discomfort during exercise is normal and inevitable—after all, you are challenging your body to do more than it is accustomed to. And you can expect to have some sore muscles after a vigorous workout; often the soreness doesn’t show up until a day or two later, especially with strength training.

But pain and other symptoms that occur during exercise can be warning signs that something is wrong. You should stop exercising right away if you:
  • Have pain or pressure in the left or middle part of your chest, or in the left side of your neck, left shoulder or left arm
  • Feel dizzy or sick
  • Break out in a cold sweat
  • Have muscle cramps
  • Feel sharp pain in your joints, feet, ankles, or bones
  • Notice that your heart starts racing or beating irregularly
If you start to experience these problems during high intensity aerobic exercise, it is best to immediately slow down. Allow your heart rate to drop gradually before stopping completely, since an abrupt stop can cause problems with blood circulation and fainting. However, in cases of severe and sudden pain, stop immediately, seek help, and follow up with your doctor.

Gyms & Trainers: What to Look For
If you do some of your exercise in the gym, whether on your own, in group classes, or with a personal trainer, there are some simple precautions you can take to keep yourself safe:
  • Make sure the gym’s trainers and instructors have been trained and certified by a reputable, national certification agency, such as ACE, AFAA, ACSM or NSCA. They should also hold current CPR and first aid certifications, so they can take action if an emergency occurs.
  • Ask the gym staff about the emergency action plan (every gym should have one and the employees should know its details) and equipment they have on hand, such as a basic first aid kid and an AED (Automated external defibrillator).
  • Tell every personal trainer and fitness instructor who works with you about your limitations or medical conditions. Well-trained instructors should ask about this at the beginning of any group class or during your first session and be able to offer modifications.
  • If you don't understand the instructions given, or the proper way to do an exercise or use a piece of equipment, always ask first. Improper technique or body position is a major cause of injury.
Know Your Limits & Your Needs
A big part of exercise safety is prevention. Just as your car will run better when you service it regularly, your body will protect itself from injury when you give it the food, water, rest, and attention it needs to operate at its best.

You’ll find a lot of information in the Resource Center and on the Message Boards about basic nutrition, and exercise-related concerns such as stretching, warming up and cooling down properly, and dealing with minor aches and pains before they become big problems.

So, do your homework first, then get out there and start sweating!

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Member Comments

  • Good information. My doctor cleared me for exercise even though I find it very difficult. I'm going to start overdraft slow.
  • EVIE4NOW
    Have pain or pressure in the left or middle part of your chest, or in the left side of your neck, left shoulder or left arm... I would add to this a pain between your shoulder blades or being nauseous can also be signs of a heart attack.
  • Thanks for the article. Good info
  • NANUOF3
    Trying hard to lose weight. Can't really exercise yet, just diagnosed with left bundle branch blockage in my heart. Put myself on a strict diet and do a lot of 5-10 minute exercises. Wish me luck. This is my first week and feeling some better and clothes are already fitting a tad looser.
  • LGECOL55
    I just had the OK from my Doctor to join the local gym since they have my seizures under control. I live alone, they don't want me exercising by my self. The gym is very nervous,
    and I know when to stop by body signals. I do not pass out, but have right side weakness with my seizures. Do I just plain not exercise or give it a try.
    lgecol55
  • Good article. This helps me alot, because I have an appointment at curves. I asked a few questions on the phone, now I have more. I am not sure it is right for me , but this gives me the info. I needed . I have some problems that limits me I hope they have a program that fits my needs. Thanks for this article.
  • MOLLFOX
    Great article, thanks for sharing!
  • thank for the article on exercise i just join the ymca try to go every day .but not all way do.but just wont you to know i did read the article and they did help out thank you
  • You neglected to mention NASM as one of the nationally recognized certifying agencies.
  • Just a "thumbs up" to Anne's comments about Chair Exercises. I use a walker & thought I was doomed as far as ever being able to do cardio exercises, but started with "Stronger Seniors" dvds & with the help of those (& tracking my portions of food), I've lost 25 lbs in the last 3 months sans injury. Given my starting weight of 310 lbs, in no way could I support the full weight of my body & exercise while standing without hurting myself. So, Chair Exercises are definitely the way to go!
  • Timely advice now that the weather has turned and people feel the need to get out and exercise.

    It is important to point out that not everyone can start with traditional exercise. If you are in a special population (overweight or obese, elderly, diabetic or arthritic), modified exercise could be a good starting point.

    Chair Exercise and water exercise are non-impact options that will get you on the path to consistent exercise without the risk of injury. Since chair and water exercise is a bit easier than some other forms of fitness activities, you will be more likely to stay with your goals and not feel that "I'm too old" or "I'm too sick", or "I'm too heavy."

    Of course, speak with your health care professional before beginning any exercise program if you have been inactive for a while.

    It's never too late to start feeling better, both physically and emotionally. Action does not guarantee happiness, but there can be no happiness without action.

    Write out your goals and start moving. Today!

    Stay strong
    Anne Pringle Burnell
  • I have cold sweats whenever I exercise and a very uncomfortable pressure between the eyes and in the back of my neck near the occipital. Its rather uncomfortable. Why is cold sweats in the list of concern?
  • Hi, I like the article. I tried the links for PARQ and received nothing. I then went to google.com and typed in PARQ and was able to find a pdf of the sheet.

    Also, for those who think they can start and exercise program quickly from nothing and not see a doctor - your body isn't ready for it and you may have hidden health issues that you do not know about. Exercising for health is great until you have a heart attack (etc) because your body isn't ready for the intense program. Taking care of yourself also means to start with the best foot forward - see your health professional! Happy Holidays
  • DIANE2110
    I like the articles and there are many. I haven't been able to find any on breathing during exercises. I seem to always end up doing the reverse breathing from what the exercise calls for. Does it matter when I exhale or inhale?
  • MOM210
    Leanne26, no the point is not for your heart to RACE. There is a difference in increasing your heart rate to a level that gets you in your target heart rate and having a racing heart. Sometimes your heart can race and it'll be ok but a Doctor has to determine that because if you feel nauseous after a workout, that's a bad sign. If you feel tired that's ok. But, there are types of heart racing that can kill you. Check with your doctor to be sure.

About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.

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