Fitness: Frequently Asked Questions

Q. Should I visit my doctor before beginning to exercise?

A. Males over 40 and females over 50 should consult with their doctors before starting an exercise program. If you are younger than this and have no symptoms of disease, are apparently healthy and are starting a moderate exercise program, you may not need to visit your doctor before beginning. If you don't see your doctor on a regular basis, you may want to check with him/her before starting a program to see if your health has changed. You want to determine whether you have any limitations and to talk about exercise guidelines: how much, how often and what type of exercise. Your physician may refer you to a health specialist or personal trainer for more specific information on exercise guidelines.

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Q. Why is it important to do a warm-up and cool-down when I exercise?

A. A proper warm-up prepares your body for exercise, improving your performance and reducing your chance of injury. It slowly increases your heart rate to exercise level, increases blood flow to provide needed nutrients to exercising muscles and increases muscle temperature for better efficiency and flexibility. Warm-ups vary depending on your activity. Starting out slowly on a walk, jog or bike and increasing your pace to allow your body to warm up is a common method. If your activity is intense, you should have a more specific warm-up to reduce the chance of injury and to increase your performance.

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A cool-down helps to slowly bring your heart rate and blood pressure down to a resting level. If you stop exercising too suddenly, the blood can pool in the muscles and cause you to feel light-headed and dizzy and even cause you to faint, especially if you don't cool down and go right into a cool shower. Your heart works overtime trying to pump your blood back through the circulatory system. You should always stretch at the end of any exercise session, too. Slowing down your exercise and going easy for the last five minutes and then doing 5-10 minutes of stretching works well.

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Q. What are the benefits of cross training?

A. Cross training, or participating in more than one sport, has become very popular. It allows you to exercise more than one muscle group and avoids the monotony of doing the same exercise every day. Exercising more muscle groups increases your overall muscle endurance. Cross training also allows some overused muscles to get much-needed rest, decreasing the risk of exercise-induced injuries. It's best to do a couple of exercises that complement each other by training different parts of the body, such as cycling and rowing. There are two ways most people approach cross training. The first is to alternate activities on a day-to-day basis: run on Monday, swim on Wednesday, cycle on Friday. The second method is to alternate activities within an exercise session: 20 minutes of cycling followed by 20 minutes of rowing.

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Q. Should I use ankle/wrist weights when I walk and run?

A. No. Wearing wrist and ankle weights when you walk or run, or during any aerobic exercise, can strain your joints from the repetitive motion. If you are trying to gain strength or burn more calories, then start a separate strength program. Including a separate strength routine in your exercise program will help you gain the strength you want without straining your joints and will increase your metabolism, so you'll burn more calories and reduce your percentage of body fat.

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Q. What types of food are best to eat when training?

A. The same types of healthy foods you should be eating on a daily basis. A healthy diet should obtain 20-35% of total calories from fat, 10-35% from protein and 45-65% from carbohydrates (whole grain breads, cereals, crackers, pasta, rice, fruits and vegetables). Whether you run, bike, swim or weight train, your primary energy source comes from carbohydrates. Variety, moderation and wholesomeness are the keys to a healthy diet. No one food has all the nutrients we need. All foods can be fit into a well-balanced diet, but remember to eat foods that are poor in nutrients (sweets, etc.) in moderation. Choosing wholesome foods from the six major food groups will give your body the fuel it needs to perform your best while exercising.

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Q. How does exercise affect weight loss?

A. Exercise is the key to weight loss. The explanation lies in your Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR. This is the rate at which you burn calories at rest. Any type of exercise – walking, biking, swimming – will help to increase your BMR and therefore burn calories more quickly. Increasing your muscle tissue, another benefit of exercise, also increases your BMR, which will ultimately lead to weight loss.

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Q. What is the best way to treat the minor aches and pains I sometimes experience when I exercise?

A. There are many reasons people may have aches and pains from exercise. If you're not sure why you're hurting, or if you've had the aches for more than a few days, you should check with your doctor. Aches and pains are telling you something is wrong. You may have developed an overuse injury. Some pains are from exercising too hard, causing your muscles to become sore and tight. Back off a little and slowly increase your intensity. Other aches are from doing an exercise for the first time and stressing the muscles in a different range of motion. Make sure you're properly warming up, cooling down and stretching to reduce soreness and the chance of injury. An ice pack can ease aches and pains after exercise and activity. Please check with a doctor, trainer or health specialist for more treatment information.

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Q. How many minutes should I exercise each day? How many times per week?

A. Exercise frequency and duration depend on what your goals are. For the average person looking for general health improvement, 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity on most (preferably all) days of the week is recommended. Moderate-intensity activities include walking, swimming, cycling, raking leaves, mowing your lawn (push mower), gardening, house cleaning and walking up and down stairs. If your goal is to increase your aerobic fitness level, then you should exercise 3-6 days a week, 15-60 minutes per session, at your target heart rate. This level of activity is enough to challenge your body and improve aerobic fitness. Remember, any amount of exercise and activity is beneficial to your health and is better than none.

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Q. What type of aerobic exercise is best for me?

A. You will get the same physiological benefits from any aerobic exercise, so you should pick something you enjoy and will stick with. To be beneficial, aerobic exercise should be sustained for at least 15 to 20 minutes per session. Walking, swimming, hiking, cross-country skiing, skating, running, cycling and paddling are some examples of aerobic activities. Weight lifting is not aerobic. You can do one exercise or combine several to improve your fitness. Many people do not like to do one exercise for a long time, so they cross train.

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Q. Should I weight train?

A. Weight training is not just for bodybuilders. A sensible program benefits just abut everyone. Americans who do not perform regular strength exercises lose about five pounds of muscle every decade, decreasing their metabolic rate by five percent. This is the main reason why the average person can eat the same amount of food but add fat weight year after year. Strong muscles reduce your risk of injury and defend against low-back discomfort and pain, which affects four out of five Americans. Other health improvements you gain from strength training are reduced blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels, better blood glucose metabolism and increased bone-mineral density. Well-conditioned muscles increase your physical capacity, enhance your personal appearance and increase self-satisfaction. There are a variety of weight training methods, at gyms, at home and even outside. Find the program that fits your needs and goals.

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Q. How do I know if I'm working too hard or not hard enough?

A. There are several ways to tell. Measuring your heart rate during exercise is the best way to tell how hard your body is working. If you work too hard, you can burn out or increase your chance of injury. If you don't work hard enough, you may not get all the benefits you could. Ideally, you should be working at your target heart rate. A heart rate monitor will give you an accurate gauge without interrupting your workout. Another way to tell how hard you're working is by perceived exertion – does the exercise feel comfortable? The "talk test" is also a reliable indicator, you should be able to talk comfortably while exercising.

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Q. How much water should I drink when I exercise?

A. To maximize your workout, drink 16-20 ounces of water two hours before exercising (8 ounces = 1 cup); 8-16 ounces 15 to 20 minutes before exercising; and 3-6 ounces every 15 to 20 minutes during prolonged strenuous activity. Cold water is best; your body will absorb it more quickly. Water keeps you from overheating, transports glucose ("fuel") to your working muscles and replenishes the water your body loses through perspiration and respiration.

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Q. I can't seem to get back on track after taking a few weeks off from exercise. Do you have any suggestions?

A. Getting back into your exercise routine can be very difficult. Many people try to start right back where they left off and get frustrated when their bodies won't let them. Start exercising at a lower level than when you stopped, in order to familiarize your muscles with the exercise again. Gradually increase the intensity and quantity of your exercise. This will help reduce soreness, prevent burnout and reduce your chance of injury or re-injury. Have you lost your motivation? Try working out with a partner. You will motivate each other to keep your exercise routine going.

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Q. Who can I contact to help me with a personal weight-training program?

A. You should contact a certified personal trainer, fitness instructor, health specialist or weight-training coach. They can be found at your local gym, college, YMCA or health club. Make sure you specify your goals when talking with someone about an exercise program. They should be able to help you meet those goals and fit your program into your daily schedule.

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