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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 for example 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 (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 certainly I felt all of those symptoms to some extent!

I’m sure many of you do what I did when I started exercising. I completely disregarded the warnings and started working out because I was tired of being overweight and unfit.  I didn’t want to overcome yet another obstacle by waiting to talk to my doctor.  (Doctors are notorious for being bad patients, by the way.)

Let’s get serious for a few moments and examine these disclaimers. Let's 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 as SparkPeople members to take an 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 of it, but as a doctor I know it's better to be safe than sorry (and SparkPeople agrees--and includes such a warning in the site's terms and conditions).

Thankfully, most people who choose to disregard these disclaimers do not suffer any consequences.  But, some people will find out that they have a heart condition during exercise, injure themselves, or exacerbate their 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?

SparkPeople uses the PAR-Q (Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire), which is used by doctors, trainers and health clubs the world over, 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 18-65, 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 30-60 minutes 5 days a week or 20-60 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise 3 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 especially here at SparkPeople.  The calorie-burning benefits of exercise are certainly important, but don't forget that exercise is important for heart health and to disease prevention.  But, it’s OK if you’re doing it to get into your skinny jeans, too!

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. 

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.  You are better safe than sorry. 

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 hear the disclaimer you can say, "Check! I know I’m all clear!" 

If you're new to exercising, these resources might be helpful:
Keep sparking everyone!

Did you consult a doctor before you started exercising?

Dr. Birdie Varnedore, M.D., is happy to offer her expertise to the SparkPeople community; however, she cannot offer specific medical advice to dailySpark readers. Please do not share confidential medical information here. If you have a personal question or a concern about your health, please contact your health-care provider.

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MBPP50 12/19/2017
Excellent advice Report
I am glad the PAR-Q was highlighted and explained, but the tone of the article was a little scattered and confusing as people are preparing to start the new year off "on the right foot."
I hope everyone has a great 2012 and walks (or other favorite exercise) their way to health and fitness...and into whatever size clothes look good on them! Report
I have mixed emotions on this one. I had a triple bypass back in 2004. I've been fine ever since. After being released to exercise I worked up to doing 60 minutes on the elliptical 3 to 5 times a week, followed by 30 minutes of strength training. I had a pretty good idea what I needed to stay in cardio mode. Fast forward a few years. New doctor... I've taken up running and have started training for a 5K (plus I'm dancing 3 or 4 times a week). I hurt my knee (while dancing) and go to the new doc to get it checked out. While there I mention my exercise plan and the doc vetoes it. Says that I should stay away from stationary bikes and ellipticals and running. Suggests that I stick to walking 3 times a week.

Well I've been doing it, but I don't think I'm getting into the cardio zone unless I push myself (which is what the Dr. wants me to avoid). My thought is that some doctors may be just a wee bit more paranoid than the patient needs. 6 months ago I was enjoying my morning runs, now I'm not overly enthused about getting on a treadmill and walking for 30 minutes. Report
My doctor knows I have been exercising on/off due to my foot injury I had earlier. She only told me not to continue doing an activity if it hurt. I am following her advice. Report
As a 53 year old woman, I did ask my doctor if there was any reason I could NOT start working out. She gave me the okay and I have been working out for the past 2 years. So I did ask and felt better knowing there was nothing KNOWN that would impact my fitness. Report
Excellent advice, as usual, from our wonderful Dr. Birdie! We love you, Dr., and your advice, your example, and your story which is inspiriational.

My doctor has been 'on board' from day 1, and is cheering me on. I am inspired by him also. Having a supportive doctor is key! Report
I answered yes to 7/10 of the questions. I guess this is in the one time that scoring that high isn't a good thing! I have consulted with both my primary care doctor and my cardiologist about exercising and they are both happy I'm doing it again.

I would also strongly suggest that people with any serious medical problems NOT exercise by themselves. I would also suggest they wear some kind of medic alert bracelet in case something does happen. Take it from a person who has survived an aneurysm, when things go south it is very comforting to have an easy, reliable way for medical professionals to access your medical and contact information. Report
According to the checklist, the author -- and probably most of the rest of us who start exercise programs without visiting doctors -- are in the wrong. Item 9 says to see a doctor if you are overweight! I would also wager a guess that most folks have at least some incipient joint issues. Wouldn't a better approach be to say "here are some suggestions if you are starting a program and are doing so without a doctor's advice." Report
Did I consult a doctor before starting to exercise? You bet! I was forty-six, overweight, out-of-shape and starting from zero. I wanted to make sure I wouldn't keel over dead and had a complete physical, including blood tests and an EKG. It was the best thing as it gave me a clear bill of health and no worries when the huffing and puffing on the treadmill FELT like impending death! LOL! Report
I don't even ~have~ a doctor, nor have I had medical coverage in over a decade. So, yeah, I'm one of those who ignores the "before you exercise" warnings. If I heeded them, I'd never have started until I was old or injured and rushed to an emergency room.

On the flip side, I didn't go completely inactive even gaining weight - I was walking to and from work. Nor am I unaware of what to watch for body-wise as warning signs. So I think I've struck a good balance for now. Report
I did consult my Dr. and he takes an active interest and lets me know what not to do and when and what I can do and under what circumstances. I don't remember Dr's in my earlier years being that helpful. I am lucky. Report
I did not consult with a physician prior to starting my workout, but I answered No to all of the questions above, but I would agree that it is always a good idea to check with a professional. Report
I enjoyed reading your blog and like many I did not consult my physician before starting my exercise routine. However, my physician knows that I exercise on a regular basis and encourages it. Report
I agree with the article as well. I consulted with my doctor prior to starting any new routine and I am very open about anything that aches from any previous exercises. However most GP's don't really know what to advise patients on working out. Report
I agree with the article. However, I feel that many GPs don't have a great deal of knowledge about exercise or how complex conditions are affected by them. I have Crohn's disease and Crohn's related arthritis. My GP, gastro and rheumy all struggle to tell me what is a good idea to do. They say I need to rest when I am ill, but my experience suggests my immune system will just do what it wants, regardless of rest.

I feel that if there was good quality advice available I would certainly take it. But since there isn't I just go with what feels right. I exercise through discomfort but never real pain. I stop when I am tired and make sure I get proper rest days in. I vary the intensity based on how it feels. Essentially I listen to what my body is telling me and never ignore it. If I had hoped to run 2 miles but I start out and it feels wrong, I walk instead.

This contrasts with the advice I often get which is "bed rest for two weeks". When I do that, all my joints seize up and I get stuck in a vicious cycle of feeling awful. Report
I didn't consult a doctor before I started working out. However since I take blood thinners I do consult my hemotologist before doing anything that would require impact to my body like self defense classes. I also take precautions to protect myself from bruising - like always wearing gloves when strength training. Report
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