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What should I do before beginning an exercise program?

If you've slacked off on physical activity or have never exercised regularly, it's a good idea to see your doctor or a sports medicine physician, especially if you haven't had a recent checkup. It's important for your doctor to identify any medical concerns before you increase your activity levels.

People who particularly need a doctor's clearance include those who:

  • Are suffering or recovering from a serious illness, injury, and/or musculoskeletal problem
  • Have known cardiovascular, pulmonary, and/or metabolic diseases (including diabetes) or are experiencing symptoms that could indicate these conditions
  • Have risk factors such as a history of smoking, high glucose levels, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and/or a family history of heart attack
  • Have recently undergone surgery
  • Are pregnant or have recently given birth

I've just begun exercising. What rules of thumb should I keep in mind?

Start slowly and build gradually. Studies show that a fitness program is much more likely to stick long term when people steadily incorporate simple, sustainable activities into their lifestyles.

Consider starting with miniworkouts. A good first goal is to accumulate 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week—the current recommendation for good health. You can realize significant health benefits by squeezing in just five or 10 minutes of exercise several times throughout the day.

For example, try parking your car farther from the door or getting off the bus a few blocks early. Give up the remote control. Try walking around your office or around the block while you talk on the phone. At home, opt for the rake instead of the leaf blower...and remember that these types of "active chores" count.

Listen to your body and adjust your level of activity accordingly. If you experience pain, swelling, dizziness, shortness of breath, or excessive fatigue, for example, your body is telling you to slow down, as these symptoms could indicate serious health concerns.

Stay hydrated. Drink water before and after you exercise, even if you're not thirsty. If it's especially hot or humid, or if you're exercising vigorously, drink a cup of water every 15 minutes during your workout, as well.

Weigh yourself before and after you exercise. If you've lost 5 percent or more of your body weight during your workout, you are dehydrated and need to replenish your fluids.

Stretch. To prevent soreness and injury and increase flexibility, stretch for five to 10 minutes after workouts, when body temperature and muscles are warm, and hold each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds.

Challenge yourself—slowly. Start by walking 20 to 30 minutes at a comfortable pace four days a week. Then try alternating two to five minutes of brisk walking with two to five minutes of easy walking, gradually increasing the ratio of brisk to easy. Once you can comfortably manage 30 minutes of brisk walking, you may want to add running to your repertoire.

At first, run 30 seconds, then walk 90 seconds, and repeat for 30 minutes. When you can do that comfortably, try 45 seconds of running and 75 seconds of walking. You can progress to 75 seconds running and 45 seconds of walking...then 90 running and 30 walking, until you're running for 30 minutes. This process can take from eight weeks to four months. Listen to your body, and don't feel pressured to progress more quickly than you're ready to.

Allow muscles time to heal. After a strength-building activity, give the affected muscles a day to repair themselves before working them again.