People with cancer, diabetes and heart disease mistakenly think exercise is unsafe

May 28, 2012

For people with a chronic health condition, exercise might seem like a low priority, if not something to avoid altogether. Many people with such illnesses as cancer, diabetes and heart disease mistakenly think that exercise is unsafe for them. But ongoing research is making the opposite case, showing again and again that regular activity is not only safe for most people with chronic illnesses but can actually boost vigor, increase longevity and reverse some symptoms of many conditions. In some cases, it can even reverse the course of disease — for example, by reducing coronary artery plaque. For people with a chronic illness, here are some questions and answers about getting and staying active.

How do I start?

Even if you don’t have a chronic illness, it can be hard to get started on an exercise routine. For example, about half of very old adults cite muscle and joint pain or weakness as reasons for not exercising, regardless of their overall health.

But exercise doesn’t have to be uncomfortable or strenuous to provide significant benefits.

If you’re inactive, start at a level that feels comfortable, even if it’s only five minutes a day, and gradually build up over time. Ultimately, you should aim for the equivalent of 30 minutes of moderately intense aerobic exercise five days a week, plus two 20-minute sessions of strength training with weights, exercise bands or resistance machines.

One easy way to get going is to add activity to everyday routines. Do light calisthenics when watching television. Turn off the computer and walk to the park with your dog.

How hard should it be?

Moderate intensity is generally defined as enough to cause a light sweat and elevate your heart and breathing rate, but not so much that you can’t talk. Walking briskly is sufficient for most people to reach that level. Other suitable activities include cycling, dancing, swimming or using an elliptical machine.

You don’t have to tackle it all at once; in fact, splitting up exercise into several shorter, easier segments might be more effective than pushing yourself to do more at one time.

For strength training, muscles need to be worked at only 60 percent of their maximum capacity for you to see results. That means using a weight or resistance that allows you to do about 15 repetitions. Choose eight to 10 exercises that work the arms, legs, shoulders, chest, abdomen and back, including both pushing and pulling movements.

How can I avoid injury?

Only a few conditions make exercise too risky altogether. They include spinal instability, a recent heart attack, extremely advanced heart failure or a detached retina. Otherwise, nearly everyone can safely begin training at moderate intensity. Consult your doctor first to go over potential concerns specific to your disorder. In addition, follow these tips:

Wear well-fitting athletic shoes with good traction to protect against slips.

Always warm up with five to 10 minutes of walking or light calisthenics before aerobics or strength training.

Drink water before, during and after exercising. But ask your doctor about the right amount if you take diuretics, have kidney disease or heart failure, or have been instructed to limit fluids.

Stop if you feel dizzy or nauseated, break out in a cold sweat or experience muscle cramps or severe pain in your joints, feet or legs. And get medical attention right away if you have pain in your chest, jaw or neck; unusual shortness of breath; dizziness; or a skipping, racing or thumping heartbeat.

How do I stay motivated?

Choose activities that are fun, and keep track of your progress. Once a month, time how long it takes you to complete the same walk or how much more weight you can lift.

If you don’t feel confident exercising on your own, ask your doctor for a referral to a clinical exercise physiologist or physical therapist who works with people who have your condition. Or look for an exercise class geared to your needs. For example, Fit & Strong (www.fitandstrong.org) is a national program designed for people with arthritis. You can also try online resources such as the National Institute on Aging’s Go4Life site (go4life.niapublications.org).

Copyright 2012. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

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