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.
If a training program sounds too tough, don't despair. "The more you do, the better it is, but it's not all or none," Christina C. Wee, MD, MPH, tells WebMD. "Do as much as you can."
If you're overweight or out of shape, breaking up your daily activity into shorter bursts may be easier, says Wee, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, and author of an editorial that accompanied the study. You don't have to run a marathon -- gardening, vacuuming, and doing laundry can all burn calories while keeping your heart fit.
"I stay in shape just keeping up with my 11-year-old grandson and his friends," says Ricci, who mows the lawn once a week and cleans house, in addition to supervising neighborhood football games.
Before starting any fitness program or even just picking up the pace of your usual activities, be sure to talk with your doctor. What questions should you ask?
- Should I limit any activities because of medical conditions or physical injuries?
- What's the safest way to start? Do I need to build up gradually to my fitness goals, warm up or stretch before exercise, or cool down afterwards?
- Should I avoid intense sunlight, temperature extremes, mosquitoes, exhaust fumes, or other environmental conditions?
- Are there times I should not exercise vigorously, like after eating or before bedtime?
- Should I cut back if I experience extreme fatigue or muscle pain?
- Are there warning signs for which I should get medical help immediately, like chest pain, faintness, or extreme shortness of breath?
Once you've got medical clearance, just do it! "Anything you can do to get up and moving is helpful," Simons-Morton says. "No wonder we have an obesity epidemic -- we have a sedentary lifestyle. We sit all day at work, then watch TV and play video games. We were not designed to function in that type of environment, and it's killing us."