There are warnings just about everywhere you look: the coffee you’re about to drink is hot! Construction ahead! This product may contain peanuts!
In many cases, the reasons for these warnings are clear. But sometimes warnings raise more questions than they answer. When I was at the gym recently, these stationary bike and treadmill warnings were hard to miss in bright red font:
- Get a medical exam before starting any exercise program.
- Excessive exercise can cause serious injury or death.
- If you feel weak, dizzy or in pain, stop exercising immediately.
What exactly did the authors of the warning mean by “any exercise program”? What constitutes excessive exercise? Have any pain anywhere does that mean you should stop exercising?
Finally, I wonder: Could these caveats cause unnecessary worry that actually discourages people from exercising?
Is it safe to start exercising without seeing a doctor?
A doctor’s approval isn’t necessary for most of us. Most people can safely start a low-intensity exercise program and slowly build up their efforts over time. Choose activities that allow you to carry on a conversation, such as:
- using light weights that are easy to lift
- walking at a slow pace
- riding a bicycle at a slow pace (less than 5 mph)
- stretching and balancing activities
- light housework or garden work.
If you’re starting out at a low fitness level, make small increases in your training over time. For example, if you start walking 10 minutes a day, add a minute to your walk every week or two. After walking 20 minutes a day, try picking up the pace a bit.
Who should watch out for exercise?
Of course, exercising is riskier if you have certain health conditions. It makes sense to ask a healthcare professional for exercise recommendations if you’re concerned about your health or have any of these conditions:
- coronary artery disease, including symptoms of angina or a previous heart attack. Exercising too soon could stress your heart and trigger a heart attack or dangerous heart rhythm. Low-intensity workouts (such as short walks at a comfortable pace) may be preferable, at least until it’s clear you can tolerate more.
- Exercise induced asthma. Your doctor may recommend an inhaler treatment to open up the airways in your lungs just before or during exercise.
- muscle disease, such as a metabolic myopathy. Your doctor may discourage you from engaging in certain exercises, such as sprinting or long-distance running.
- Backache. Low-impact exercise, like biking or swimming, may be a better choice for people with back pain than high-impact options, like jogging or basketball.
If exercise is so good for you, why the warnings?
Let’s look at possible reasons for some alerts:
- Have a doctor visit before starting an exercise program he may discover a condition that makes exercise unsafe. The best example is probably coronary artery disease, which could trigger a heart attack during strenuous exercise. Luckily, sudden heart problems during exercise are relatively rare (although you might think otherwise based on TV and movies, including an episode of the Sex and the cityrestart).
- Excessive exercise it is not a well-defined medical term. But it’s true that suddenly training at a high intensity when you’re not used to it could be dangerous.
- Stop exercising if you feel faint or lightheaded presumably refers to concerns about severe dehydration or other causes of low blood pressure.
- Pain warnings it could refer to chest pain which could be a sign of heart problems. Or it could be a warning about a type of serious muscle damage called rhabdomyolysis (which can complicate prolonged or strenuous exercise).
Of course, it’s also possible that these warnings have little to do with your health and everything to do with lawyers! That is, equipment manufacturers might hope that these warnings will ward off lawsuits from people who suffer a medical problem while using their equipment.
Are these warnings helpful?
All the warnings, alerts and cautions in our daily lives can become background noise. Despite the red letters and bold fonts, warnings like these are easily ignored.
Nor do they add much. My guess is that most people who experience significant dizziness or pain during a workout will stop what they’re doing even without reading a warning label. And serious medical conditions that occur during exercise are pretty rare, so the impact of warning everyone about them is likely small.
The bottom line
Don’t be overly alarmed by notices slapped on sports equipment. True, it’s best not to drop weights on your foot or train too hard or for a long time. If you’re concerned about the risks of exercising or have been advised to take extra care with exercise, it’s reasonable to talk to your doctor.
But that conversation isn’t necessary for most people, including those with well-controlled chronic conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, or coronary heart disease. In fact, regular exercise helps cure many diseases.
Exercise is among the most important things you can do to improve your health. And inactivity is generally a much bigger risk than exercise.
So if you see warnings about gym equipment at your next workout, keep that in mind: There are much riskier things to worry about. Like hot coffee.
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