Starting an Exercise Program: How Your Doctor Can Help

Posted By SHL Librarian

Presented by: Paul Wang, MD
Director, Stanford Cardiac Arrhythmia Service

Nawal Atwan, MD
Clinical Instructor, Internal Medicine
Stanford University Medical Center
October 21, 2010

Lecture Overview:

  • Many heart conditions often have no symptoms, so it is important to screen young athletes before they start a sport or activity.
  • Screening should include a health history and a complete physical, which may include an electrocardiogram.
  • People over 40 who have symptoms of chest pain or shortness of breath should have a stress test before starting a new sport.
  • Mix up your routine to include exercises for cardiovascular health, weight training for strengthening muscles, and stretches for flexibility and balance.
  • Start with a plan and steadily increase your goals to measure improvement.

Most people know the many benefits of exercise. Including workouts into your routine has shown to increase longevity, reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, improve cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, prevent diabetes, and make you feel better. It helps with weight loss, strengthens bones, and enhances cognitive function-all concerns that affect the quality of life as we age.

Screen for Heart Conditions The only paradox to exercise is a very slight increase in the risk of heart attacks or death from cardiac arrest. Sudden cardiac arrest-when the heart ceases to beat without any warning-is one of the largest heart health problems in the United States. The heart’s electrical system goes awry, making it unable to pump blood to the rest of the body.

The chance of successful resuscitation drops 10 percent every minute, said Paul Wang, MD, director of the Stanford Cardiac Arrhythmia Service and Cardiac Electrophysiology Laboratory, who spoke about cardiovascular evaluation and screening at a presentation sponsored by the Stanford Health Library.

There are more adults with congenital heart defects than ever before, due in large part from improved surgeries. According to the 36th Bethesda Conference, which establishes guidelines for people with cardiac disorders, most congenital heart disease patients have a reduced ability to exercise. Experts are still debating how much exercise is appropriate and whether teens with a heart condition should be allowed to participate in sports.

Many heart conditions often have no symptoms, so it is especially important to screen young athletes before they start to participate in a sport or activity. In athletes younger than age 40, the most common underlying cause of heart problems is known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This rare genetic disease causes the heart muscle (myocardium) to become abnormally thick, making it harder for the heart to pump blood.

The condition tends to manifest in the late teens, and the risk remains an ongoing concern, said Dr. Wang.

“If you’ve had an arrhythmia once, or have a condition that could lead to arrhythmia, the likelihood is higher that you can suffer from cardiac arrest,” he said. “The recommendations are that you should be excluded from most competitive sports.”

There are other conditions that young people should be screened for before taking on a strenuous sport, including anomalous coronary artery, a rare condition that can be detected by an angiogram. These youths should also be restricted in their athletic activities, said Dr. Wang.

In older athletes, the most common cause of problems is coronary artery disease-the buildup of plaque inside the blood vessels. Other conditions of concern include myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart wall, and Marfan syndrome, a disease that weakens the walls of the aorta.

Dr. Wang recommends that all young people see their doctor for a complete physical that includes a health history. An electrocardiogram may be helpful in some cases, but experts are still discussing its benefits. Athletes over 40 who have possible symptoms of heart disease such as chest pain or shortness of breath, and sedentary people with risk factors for heart disease should have a stress test before starting a new regimen. These tests can provide clues to help your physician uncover underlying disease.

“Screening athletes is an important aspect of safety,” he said. “Then follow-up is essential.”

Before You Start to Exercise Nawal Atwan, MD, provided more detail about the benefits of exercise and how to start a healthy regimen. She recommended working out at least 30 minutes five times a week and mixing activities for cardiovascular health, strengthening muscles, and stretching.

She suggested that you start with a plan and steadily increase your goals to measure improvement. Use a pedometer for inspiration, and be realistic about what you can and can’t do. Start with lower goals and then build up the intensity and frequency, she said.

Dr. Atwan suggested a visit to the doctor before starting a new exercise or to assess risk. The physical should assess your blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, body mass index (BMI), percentage of body fat, gait, balance, and hand grip. Your doctor may recommend an electrocardiogram or a stress test to measure your heart capacity.

Talk to your physician if you have joint pain or how to prevent developing joint problems. If you have arthritis, you may benefit from a low-impact activity like swimming or water aerobics, which studies have shown can decrease pain, she said. All participants should be sure to stretch as a warm-up and cool-down, holding each position for at least 30 seconds.

“There are lots of excuses to not exercise: no time, no motivation, it’s boring, it hurts. But it’s a matter of getting out there and doing something,” Dr. Atwan said. “Exercise is the cheapest drug around-you can get the same benefits as some medications and without any side effects.”

About the Speakers
Paul Wang, MD, is a professor of medicine (cardiology) and director of the Stanford Cardiac Arrhythmia Service and Cardiac Electrophysiology Laboratory. He received his medical education at the College of Physicians & Surgeons at Columbia University in New York, did his internship at New York Presbyterian Medical Center, and did his fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School.

Nawal Atwan, MD, is a clinical instructor of medicine (internal medicine) who specializes in women’s health, athletic health, and chronic disease management. She received her MD from Harvard Medical School and did her residency at Stanford. She joined Stanford in 2009. She is Board Certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine.

For More Information:

Stanford Health Library can do the searching for you. Send us your medical questions.

About Dr. Wang
http://stanfordhospital.org/profiles/physician/Paul_Wang/

About Dr. Atwan
http://med.stanford.edu/profiles/Nawal_Atwan/

About the Stanford Cardiac Arrhythmia Service
http://stanfordhospital.org/clinicsmedServices/COE/heart/DiseasesConditions/arrhythmia/

American Heart Association
http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4749

WebMD: Starting an Exercise Program
http://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/guide/fitness-beginners-guide

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