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young children with parent on trailFor many people, starting an exercise program for the first time is quite safe. But depending on your age and whether you have certain cardiovascular risk factors, you may need to see your doctor first.

Dr. Elissa Thompson, medical director of the Healthy Parks, Healthy People project discusses these guidelines:

FAMILY HISTORY OF HEART ATTACK OR SUDDEN DEATH, specifically, any primary female relative (your mother or sister) who has had a heart attack or stroke prior to age 65 is key. Or, did any primary male relative (your father or brother) have a heart attack or stroke prior to age 55?

SMOKING is very expensive and a very high-risk behavior. It is the leading cause of acute myocardial infarction, or “heart attack,” and stroke. If you currently smoke, consider using exercise as an easy way to cut back on your tobacco use or quit altogether. Take the time you would usually spend to smoke a cigarette and walk instead. You will feel better, improve your health and decrease your risk of heart attack all with one simple (and free) activity!

HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE, also known as hypertension, “the silent killer.” Knowing your blood pressure is very important, as uncontrolled hypertension can lead to heart attack, stroke, kidney disease and vision problems. If your blood pressure is above 140/90 mmHg, you may need to see a physician to help control it. This can often be achieved through simple changes in your diet and with exercise, before medicines are needed. Exercise is a great benefit for people who have hypertension. Daily exercise of at least 30 minutes’ duration can lower your baseline blood pressure, decrease your weight, and help prevent the need for medication in some people.

CHOLESTEROL can deposit in arteries, called “plaque,” which can rupture and cause heart attacks and stoke. Having high cholesterol is an important risk factor that needs to be addressed by a doctor. Many times, simple dietary changes can make a big difference in cholesterol levels, and daily exercise can increase HDL – or “good” cholesterol – to a significant degree.

DIABETES is approaching tobacco use as the number one-cause of cardiovascular disease. Controlling diabetes takes a team effort, but can be achieved with improved diet, weight loss and exercise. In fact, walking for at least 30 minutes each day can help improve blood sugar levels and aid in weight loss. If you have diabetes, make sure that you have regular follow up with your primary care physician as well as a diabetes specialist – an endocrinologist – to make sure your blood sugar is under good control.

PHYSICAL INACTIVITY can lead to weight gain, diabetes and heart disease. We know that increasing physical activity to at least 30 minutes each day can drastically reduce the health risk posed by inactivity. The easiest way to fight inactivity is to get up and walk!

OBESITY has become a major public health threat in the United States, causing increased prevalence of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The most effective ways to combat obesity are to decrease calories from simple carbohydrates, avoidance of saturated fats and increased exercise. Making a commitment to exercise for only 30 minutes each day can improve metabolism, increase muscle mass and decrease weight.

An easy way to find out if you are at risk for obesity is to calculate your Body Mass Index, or BMI. BMI calculators are easily found on the internet, at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/ educational/lose_wt/BMI/bmicalc.htm

For example, if a man’s Body Mass Index is greater than 25, he could be at risk and it is recommended that he initiate a daily exercise regimen.

Ask yourself the following questions to help determine if you need an exercise program approved by a doctor. If you answer “yes” to any one of the following questions, you should talk with your doctor before you start an exercise program:

  • Do you have a heart condition?
  • Do you have chest pain or discomfort when you are physically active? Do you have this pain even when you are not exercising?
  • Does your heart often beat too fast or too slow when you are at rest?
  • Do you become lightheaded, lose your balance, or lose consciousness? During the past year, have you fallen more than two times?
  • Do you have problems with your bones or joints? If so, does this problem become worse when you exercise? Do your legs or buttocks hurt when you walk?
  • Do you take medications to treat a heart condition or a blood pressure problem?
  • Do you have any wounds on your feet? Do these wounds take a long time to heal?
  • During the past six months, have you had unexplained weight loss?
  • Can you think of any reason why you should not get involved in an exercise program?

If you answered “no” to all of these questions and you have no cardiovascular risk factors, a moderate physical activity program should be safe for you. But again, if you are a man over 45 or a woman over 55 and want to exercise more vigorously, you should check with your doctor.

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