Starting an exercise program

By Dr. Vic Weatherall

Physical inactivity accelerates the physiologic effects of aging and degeneration. Physical activity can moderate these changes, thus enhancing the ability to work and play, and promoting self-care and independence. Use the ideas outlined below for starting an exercise program.

Benefits of exercise

Regular exercise can

  • reduce the risk of coronary artery disease
  • lower blood pressure
  • reduce and help control weight
  • reduce hyperglycemia (excess blood sugar)
  • reduce hyperlipidemias (excess fatty substances in the blood) such as excess cholesterol
  • prevent or delay osteoporosis
  • arrest the muscle loss normally associated with aging
  • enhance muscle strength and stamina
  • increase joint flexibility
  • decrease episodes of depression
  • increase energy
  • enhance self-image
  • improve relaxation and sleep
  • increase longevity (live longer!)

It is interesting to note that moderate regular exercise is as valuable as vigorous exercise and is a lot less hazardous in terms of injuries.

Risks of exercise

Exercise at any age is not without risks. The most serious of which are cardiovascular accidents. Other risks include

  • falls
  • broken bones
  • muscle injuries
  • hypo- and hyperthermia (severe chilling and overheating)
  • dehydration

Developing an exercise program

Before beginning an exercise program, you should consult your health care provider(s) to be sure you have no serious health risks.

The specific makeup of an exercise program varies among individuals. The key variable factors of exercise are frequency (how often), intensity (how hard), and duration (how long). In addition to exercising on your own, there are many types of group exercise activities in your community. Pick something you like and stick with it! For more information, see Public Health Agency of Canada’s Get Active Tip Sheets.

The central part of any exercise program is aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise is any activity that works the large muscle groups of the body, increases the flow of blood to the heart, and accelerates metabolic (basic body activity) rate for a prolonged period of time. Examples include brisk walking, bicycling, swimming, cross-country skiing, and dancing. Jogging is often inappropriate for older persons because of its excessive demands and high incidence of muscle and joint injuries. The key is to use your large muscle groups, especially those in your legs, in uninterrupted rhythmic motion.

Two other important concepts in exercise are maximum heart rate and target heart rate. Your maximum heart rate is calculated by subtracting age from 220. For example, a 40 year old’s maximum heart rate would be 180 beats per minute. During the aerobic exercise phase of a session your target heart rate should fall within 60-80% of your maximum heart rate; therefore, their target heart rate would be 108-144 beats per minute.

Exercising at 50% of the maximum rate has also been found to be beneficial. Note that in swimming, the target heart rate should be lowered slightly.

Four parts of an exercise program

The four parts of an exercise session (1) warm-up, (2) stretching, (3) aerobic exercise, and (4) cool-down are described below.


A good warm-up consists of 5-8 minutes of light aerobic exercise at about 40-50% of your maximum heart rate. Your muscles should be warmed-up before you attempt any stretches. Warming-up increases the blood supply to your muscles, increases their flexibility, and generally prepares your body and mind for the aerobic exercise to come.


Stretching helps to increase the length and flexibility your muscles, thereby decreasing the risk of injury during exercise. Remember, you should feel a good gentle stretch but never pain.

There are different stretches for different types of exercise. In general, stretch all of your major muscle groups including your legs, trunk, upper body arms, and neck. Your health care provider or exercise program leader can tell you which stretches to perform. For example, Bob Anderson has published an excellent book “Stretching” with routines for many activities.

Aerobic exercise

To obtain maximum aerobic fitness, you should perform 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise three times every week. There has been some suggestion lately that the number of times per week can be less, and that at least 30 minutes per session are required. However, the figures given first are still the accepted standards. All of the aerobic exercises mentioned above, when performed often enough, will help you achieve your fitness goals. Remember, the three main factors in exercise are duration, frequency, and intensity, your goal is basically to attain your target heart rate for 20-30 minutes.

It is not generally advisable to start off with a 20-30 minute aerobic exercise session if you are just starting a new program or have been away from exercising for awhile. Work up gradually starting with 5 minutes of  uninterrupted aerobic exercise three times a week, then add 2 minutes each week for 12 weeks until you can do 30 minutes.


A cool-down period at the end of the aerobic phase of your exercise session is important because it allows proper post-exercise blood flow adaptations. To cool-down, perform low intensity aerobic exercises until your heart rate returns to approximately its resting level. Following this, perform the same  simple stretches you did at the beginning of the session.

Some helpful hints

Some helpful hints to start and maintain an exercise program are as follows:

  • Choose an enjoyable activity that can be performed year round.
  • Exercise at the same time of day.
  • Exercise at a comfortable temperature.
  • Do not exercise late in the evening–it can make getting to sleep difficult.
  • Exercise with a partner.

General cautions

Always heed the warning signs of injury and distress such as excessive heart rate, sweating, pain (especially in the chest), dizziness, fatigue, blurred or distorted vision, and nausea and vomiting. If any of these occur, contact your health care provider immediately.

Other important cautions are

  • Drink water before, during, and after exercise–dehydration can be life-threatening.
  • Do not exercise for 1 to 2 hours after eating.
  • Do not exercise in extreme heat or cold.

If you get injured or ill

If you sustain an injury, stop exercising and do not resume until the pain has resolved. If the injury is more than simple exercise soreness (minor pain lasting only a few days), contact your health care provider. Use your judgment. Proper care for injuries can usually get you functioning again far more quickly and can help prevent degenerative conditions from taking root.

If your exercise is interrupted for more than a week due to injury or illness, back off on your exercise level and work back up to the previous level of activity.

To schedule an appointment, contact Dr. Vic Weatherall.

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