Everyone's heard it: It's important to consult with a doctor before trying a new diet or exercise regimen. It's in the footnotes of every infomercial, magazine article, diet handout or meal plan. It's the go-to mission statement for any lifestyle change. But how important is it, really?|
That depends, according to professionals.
"Unless you have some type of pre-existing health condition that requires you to check in with your physician, you really don't need to," says Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging.
But it isn't just Milner's opinion that counts. The American College of Sports Medicine released an official statement last year declaring that consultations with a medical professional when beginning a new exercise regimen are "useful when clinically indicated, but are not recommended with universal screening."
Experts almost can unanimously agree that exercise is important for people of all ages, especially those middle aged and older. An active lifestyle manages weight and decreases the likelihood of chronic illness, and is also extremely beneficial to cognitive function, according to a 2007 report from the ACSM. Best of all, it's mostly risk-free.
"Eighty-five percent of people have at least one chronic health condition by the time they're 65, but many of those conditions are improved with exercise," says Milner.
According to the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, "the health benefits of physical activity far outweigh the risks."
So when is it important to get a consultation?
According to Barbara Bushman, Ph.D., a Department of Kinesiology professor at Missouri State University, the ACSM guidelines suggest older adults do not require an exercise test prior to initiating a moderate physical activity program. But if an older adult wants to begin a vigorous intensity program and has risk factors -- like a family history of heart disease, cigarette smoking, obesity, hypertension or prediabetes -- then they are at moderate risk for cardiovascular disease and should have a medical exam first. As such, anyone will a full-on cardiac, pulmonary or metabolic disease, asthma, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, thyroid disorder, renal or liver disease should also see a doctor.
Even if you don't fall into one of the above categories, Bushman says it's never a bad idea to speak with a doctor anyway. "I personally feel keeping open lines of communication with one's health care provider is a good thing," she says.
Milner also advises a mindful approach to the mixture of certain medications, as that can play a role in exercise performance. "As we get older, so many of us are taking more than one medication, and the interaction between the two is having an effect," he says. He advises being open with doctors so they're aware of what's going on and can prescribe according to a specific lifestyle.
For any older individual looking to start a new exercise program, Milner suggests taking it slow and starting with a solid comfort level. "A lot of people throw themselves into it," he says. "They go too hard, too fast. Just start off at a place that feels comfortable, and grow from there."
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