We get asked this question a lot, and it’s an important one. In this article I will share some guidelines to help you understand whether you should see your doctor before starting a new exercise programme.
Many people ask this as they are worried about the possible risks of exercising. However, for almost everyone, performing the right type of exercise, at the right level, is one of the best things you can do for your health. The benefits of exercise almost always outweigh the risks.
This is one of our favourite quotes:
“If exercise could be packaged in a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.”
Robert Butler, National Institute on Aging (USA)
You should be reassured to know that there are very few situations in which you absolutely shouldn’t perform any exercise. If that’s the case for you, your doctor will probably have made this very clear already.
We see it more as a question of 'What is the best kind of exercise for me', rather than 'Should I be exercising at all?'. Here's how your doctor can help you with this:
When should you see your doctor?
There are some conditions where it is important to talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise programme. These are some of the most common conditions where we recommend checking with your doctor:
- Angina at rest or during light exercise (unstable angina)
- Heart failure
- Poorly controlled diabetes
- New or uncontrolled arrhythmia or tachycardia
- Resting blood pressure higher than 180/100 mmHg
- Systemic hypotension (low blood pressure)
If any of the following apply to you, you should avoid starting a new exercise programme for now:
- You are currently unwell with an infection, or cold, flu-like symptoms
- You have recently had an accident, medical treatment (including surgery) or a new diagnosis, following which you have not yet been cleared to exercise
If you are worried about your balance, you might be interested to read this article we wrote about whether you should your doctor about your balance issues.
Following doctor's orders
If your doctor has advised you not to exercise, you should absolutely follow their guidance.
This is fairly unlikely though. It is much more likely that they will ask you to avoid specific movements, activities or intensities. This may be permanently or it could be for a certain period of time.
Make sure you are clear on what they expect you to avoid, all the situations where this might be relevant and how long you should avoid these activities for.
Many people end up remaining inactive for too long, or avoiding more than they need to, thinking they are following doctor’s orders. In fact, your doctor almost certainly wants you to get moving. The more questions you ask, the more confident you will be to do so.
Can your doctor tell you it’s safe for you to exercise?
Your doctor won’t be able to tell you for sure that you will be safe doing this or that type of exercise. It’s just impossible to say. Depending on your conditions or recent history, they will be able to advise you as best they can. Here are a few things you can discuss with your doctor to get the most valuable advice:
- Explain to them what type of exercise you want to do. The more information you can provide, the better. If you will be going to a class or having one-to-one sessions, you could ask the instructor to prepare a summary of the programme for your doctor to review. Your doctor may also want to know about their experience and relevant qualifications.
- Ask if there are any specific movements or situations you should avoid.
- Ask them for any warning signs to look out for, specifically related to any conditions you have. (eg. if you are diabetic, you should know the signs of a hypoglycaemic attack)
If you have any other concerns, or your health situation changes over time, you should discuss your exercise programme with your doctor again.
Confidence is key
It’s important to feel confident when you start exercising, especially if you haven’t exercised for a while or have one or more medical conditions. So, whatever your concern (even if it’s not listed above), if it’s bothering you, we recommend checking with your doctor.
Once you have had that conversation and you have all the information you need, you should feel more confident about starting a new exercise programme.
When you are confident, you are more likely to relax and enjoy yourself. You will make the most of the time you spend exercising and be more likely to keep up a regular exercise habit.
Here’s an article I wrote about exercising at the right level for you which might be helpful when you are starting on a new programme.
If you would like more advice or assistance after seeing your doctor, we recommend finding an exercise specialist who is qualified and experienced. Let them know about the advice your doctor gave you as this will help them to give you the best support as you start to become more active.
"If exercise could be packaged in a pill..."
Remember that exercise has been proven to prevent health conditions including dementia, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, depression, heart disease and other common serious conditions - reducing the risk of each by at least 30% *.
Almost everyone will benefit from regular exercise or activity of some sort. What is important is to do the right type of exercise, at the right level, and to do it regularly. The benefits of exercise almost always outweigh the risks, and everyone will benefit from moving more.
In conclusion, for some people, a visit to their doctor before starting a new exercise programme is a prudent move. For many, it’s not necessary and the best thing to do is get started, do what feels right for you and progress gradually.