We hear stories of people getting injured or having a heart attack during exercise. You might have even experienced this yourself. At the same time, we are flooded with all the reasons we “should” exercise. How do we make sure we are getting the benefits and keeping the risks low.
The risk of having a heart attack or dying as a result of exercise is relatively low. Only 4% to 17% of heart attacks in men are linked to physical exertion, with much lower rates observed for women. The risk is greater for people who are unaccustomed to exercise and for those at the lower fitness levels. Compare that to the fact that regular physical activity cuts the risk of getting heart disease by about 40%. In fact, regular physical activity has been shown to reduce the risk of dying from any cause by 40%.
Does anything jump out at you with that last set of facts? The risk goes up if your fitness level is low and you get protection as your fitness level goes up. Regular physical activity offers amazing protection, and irregular physical activity increases risk.
One of the best ways to protect yourself is be consistent with some physical activity because it provides protection from doing nothing. Notice also the statistics from the Exercise is Medicine Fact Sheet are for physical activity – which is a broad term that includes regular movement, not necessarily a rigid exercise program. Bottom line, move and move often and regularly!
The second big factor that has been shown to increase risk is the intensity. Vigorous exercise tends to increase risk. Doing a moderate intensity lowers the risk while keeping benefits. But what does vigorous or moderate mean? Often you will hear it described as an absolute level; vigorous is jogging 6mph and moderate is walking 3mph. But in reality, it all depends on your fitness level! For some 6mph jog will be moderate and for others a 3mph walk will be vigorous.
Exercise at the level that is a moderate to comfortable challenge for your breathing – above what you would feel when you are resting but not so uncomfortable that you can’t wait to stop. Avoid vigorous intensity where your breathing is heavy or uncomfortable.
The risks also go up with a sudden burst of intense (vigorous) exercise followed by a sudden stop in activity. When you do feel like your breathing is uncomfortable (like when climbing stairs or a hill), keep moving slowly until breathing level comes back down to moderate to light before stopping completely.
Finally, if you have concerns with your heart, diabetes or high blood pressure and are not exercising regularly, discuss your plans to start with your doctor. Your best bet is to start with a light intensity activity that you can do on a very regular basis. As you improve your fitness level, your risks will reduce and the benefits go up.
If you have symptoms such as pain anywhere above your waist that comes on with exertion and goes away with rest, or have more shortness of breath with usual activities, tell your doctor. If you have pain in joints with activity, adjust what you are doing so it does not cause pain. (either by doing that activity for less time or lower intensity or do something different until your body is stronger). Pushing through pain only requires your body to “speak” louder to get your attention to let you know something is not right.
The bottom line is listen to and be kind to your body! When you move it regularly at the just right challenge level, you can relax about the risks and enjoy the benefits of exercise.
Keep Moving, Be Well,
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These weekly blogs are general guidelines. These guidelines apply to patients who are cleared by a physician for the type of exercise described. Please contact your physician with any concerns or questions. Always report any symptoms associated with exercise, such as pain, irregular heartbeats, and dizziness or fainting, to your physician.