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Should You Consult a Doctor before Starting an Exercise Plan?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
"Consult a physician before using this equipment." 

Have you seen this statement before? If the exercise equipment was manufactured in the last 30 years or so, this statement or a similar disclaimer is likely placed somewhere in small print. I see it (well, ignore it) just about every day when I step onto my elliptical. Gyms, exercise videos and weight-loss reality shows all typically have similar disclaimers such as, "Consult a physician before starting any exercise program." 

Even though we tend to ignore them, they're there!

Have you seen the one that reads: "Stop exercising if you feel pain, faint, dizziness or shortness of breath"? This one may leave you thinking "you forgot sweat." Take it from someone who has gone from a sedentary to active lifestyle, I felt all of those things and still do on days when I do strength training for my legs! I didn’t exercise to extreme pain, I never passed out and I didn't feel severe pain, but I certainly felt all of those symptoms to some extent!

I’m sure many of you do what I did when I started exercising, which is to completely disregard the warnings and start working out due to being tired of being overweight and unfit. I didn’t want to overcome yet another obstacle by waiting to talk to my doctor. 

Let’s get serious for a few moments, though, and examine these disclaimers to determine whether you actually need to consult with a physician before embarking on your exercise plan. 

I feel slightly conflicted: I ignored the ubiquitous warnings to consult my doctor before I started working out 140 pounds ago, but I'm encouraging you now to take the extra step to visit a physician before engaging in an exercise program. I know that when the inspiration to change strikes you need to take advantage as quickly as possible, but as a doctor, I know it's better to be safe than sorry.

Thankfully, most people who choose to disregard these disclaimers do not suffer any consequences. But, some will find out that they have a heart condition the hard way during exercise, injure themselves or exacerbate an existing medical conditions. They may not even realize that they are putting their health at risk by trying to do what they believe is the right thing. The rest of you will be relieved to know that you can start exercising without pulling out your wallet for a co-pay (and not sitting in the waiting room at the height of flu season). 

So how do you know which group you're in? Should you see your doctor or not?

The PAR-Q (Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire) is used by doctors, personal trainers and health clubs around the world to determine whether someone needs to take extra precautions when starting an exercise program. The questions below are based on that and can help rule out any underlying health concerns that could worsen with exercise. Answer yes or no to the following questions.
  1. When you do physical activity, do you feel chest pain?
  2. Have you felt chest pain in the last month when not exercising or being active?
  3. Do you have balance problems (due to dizziness)?
  4. Do you ever pass out (lose consciousness)?
  5. Do you have problems with your bones or joints that could be worsened if you were active?
  6. Do you take prescription medication for your blood pressure or a heart condition?
  7. Have you been diagnosed with a heart condition?
  8. Have you been told that you should only do specific, physician-approved activities?
  9. Do you have any other problems that should prevent you from being active? Smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, Type 1 or 2 diabetes, being overweight, being sedentary, current or recent musculoskeletal injury are all examples.
  10. Are you 69 or older?
Did you answer yes to even one of these questions? If so, then please contact your physician before starting an exercise program. (Note: These questions are intended for people under the age of 69, according to the American Council on Exercise. If you are 69 or older, you must consult with a physician before starting an exercise plan.)  

While we're on the subject of exercise, what are the "official" exercise recommendations anyways? For healthy adults ages 18 to 65, the American Heart Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise once per week. These exercise recommendations can be met through sessions that are 30 to 60 minutes, five days a week, or 20 to 60 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise three days a week. If you're trying to maintain a healthy weight (or lose weight), you might need more exercise.

Exercise in the context of weight loss and maintenance is a frequent topic, and while the calorie-burning benefits of exercise are certainly important, don't forget that exercise is important for heart health and disease prevention. 

What is the bottom line?

You need to assess your risk of causing yourself harm before starting an exercise program. Obviously, hearing warnings or seeing the fine print right before you start exercising isn’t the most convenient time to think about whether or not you should be exercising. Instead, take a couple of minutes right now to assess your risk. If you find that you are possibly at increased risk, then make an appointment with a physician.

Don’t use the above risk factors as an excuse not get checked out and to abandon your plan to start an exercise program. In most cases, you can get cleared for exercise with modifications. Even patients who have had heart bypasses can be cleared to do some form of exercise in many cases.  

Hopefully, the next time you see or hear those familiar disclaimers you can say, "Check! I know I’m all clear!"