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Aug. 7, 2001 -- "My doctor says to walk as much as possible," Lorraine Ricci of Tampa, Fla., tells WebMD. "You have to keep your body moving all the time -- that makes me feel a lot better."

This spry grandmother is 78 years young, and has taken her doctor's advice to heart -- thereby helping not only her heart, but her weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and mental attitude in the process. She walks briskly for a mile and a half every day, outside whenever possible, or in the mall or in front of a walking video otherwise. Studies show that regular exercise cuts risk of heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and even death.

But not all people get such good medical advice, and many wish their doctor would talk to them more about exercise. While wanting to keep fit, they may be afraid of injury or heart strain, and need to know the best way to get started.

According to a study in the Aug. 8 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, men and women whose doctors gave them advice about physical activity had better fitness levels over a two-year period. The addition of telephone and email reminders to stick to a fitness plan, group classes, and suggestions for adopting a more active lifestyle improved heart and lung conditioning in women even further, but these techniques didn't work for the men.

"Most people know they need to exercise, but have a hard time doing it because they're too busy, too tired, or just not used to it," researcher Denise C. Simons-Morton, MD, PhD, tells WebMD. "Having a specific plan helps both sexes."

To improve heart health, you need at least 30 minutes of moderate activity, like brisk walking, at least five days weekly, says Simons-Morton, deputy director of Clinical Application and Prevention at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Md. For a vigorous activity like running, three times weekly may suffice.

She recommends using a calendar to schedule regular fitness activities like taking a hike or going to the gym, setting specific goals, and getting a step counter to keep track of how you're doing. Having others support your fitness goals helps, whether it's an exercise buddy, your spouse, or your doctor giving you regular pep talks.

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