Exercise and Fitness

How can start a safe stretching routine?

DEAR DOCTOR K: At my last appointment, my doctor noticed that my movements have become stiffer. He suggested that I do some stretching exercises daily. Is there anything I should know before I start? I'm in my 80s, and I don't want to hurt myself.

DEAR READER: Our bodies become less flexible as the years roll by. Inflexibility puts a crimp in daily acts, making it harder to walk, raise your arms or turn your head while backing up the car. It undermines balance, too, which can cause life-altering falls. Stretching can help. You'll make the best gains if you stretch frequently -- all or most days of the week. At the very least, stretch two or three times a week.

Can yoga help relieve chronic pain?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I've heard that yoga can help relieve chronic pain. What types of pain can yoga help?

DEAR READER: People have been practicing yoga for thousands of years. This mind-body exercise combines breath control, meditation and movements to stretch and strengthen muscles. But yoga places as great an emphasis on mental fitness as on physical fitness. Research finds that yoga may help relieve pain in people with a variety of chronic pain conditions, including arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraine headaches and low back pain.

I haven’t exercised in years — how can I start up again?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I haven't exercised in years, but I'd like to start. What kind of exercise should I do?

DEAR READER: There is no single type of exercise that can meet all of your health needs. To get the most benefits from your exercise routine, you need a mix of activities. A balanced weekly exercise plan should look something like this: 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise; two or more strength-training sessions; balance exercises for older adults at risk for falls. If this sounds overwhelming, remember that workouts can be broken up into smaller segments.

I have osteoporosis — should I stop exercising to avoid another bone break?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Last year I broke my ankle while jogging. It turns out I was vulnerable to breaking a bone because I have osteoporosis. Should I stop exercising to avoid another break? If I should exercise, are there particular types of exercise I should do?

DEAR READER: Once you've broken a bone, it's natural to be cautious about exercise for fear of another injury. It's true that osteoporosis, a bone-thinning disease, increases your risk of bone fracture. But staying active is exactly what you should be doing right now. Why? Because the right exercises, done properly, will build up your bone strength and reduce the likelihood of another fracture.

How do I know if I’m pushing myself too hard while exercising?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I like really intense exercise, so I expect things to hurt when I'm working out. How do I know if I'm pushing myself too hard?

DEAR READER: The expression "no pain, no gain" has misled many an exercise enthusiast. The fact is, pain and other symptoms during exercise are not normal. You should pay attention when your body is sending you warning signs. Let's start with what you should expect. At the height of a workout, you should be breathing a little harder. You should still be able to talk, but you shouldn't be able to sing. You should feel your heart beating faster than normal during exercise. And you may feel your muscles burn a little as they work hard for you.

If I exercise less than the recommended 150 minutes/week, will it still benefit my health?

DEAR DOCTOR K: You often recommend exercising for 30 minutes a day, most days of the week. That target intimidates me. Is it worth it for me to exercise less, say 15 minutes, three days a week? Or is there no benefit unless I commit to the full 150 minutes per week?

DEAR READER: I'm glad you asked that question, because there are a lot of people who are daunted by the thought of exercising that much -- and therefore don't do it at all. It is true that I do advise 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week. But two recent studies, while not changing my view that 150 minutes is best, show that less than this still brings benefits.

Can dogs improve our health?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I'm on the fence about getting a dog. My wife claims that pets -- particularly dogs -- can improve our health. Is that true?

DEAR READER: When I was growing up, there was always a dog in the family. And I mean "in the family": They were a part of the family, often coming with us when we went on errands. Some of my friends never had a pet, so I once asked my mother why we always had a dog. She replied: "Dogs are good for us." I remembered that answer when I got your question.

Is it important to know your heart rate when you’re exercising?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I've seen fitness monitors that track heart rate. Is it important to know your heart rate when you're exercising?

DEAR READER: Whether you're just getting started with an exercise routine or are a committed fitness enthusiast, tracking your heart rate can be helpful. Heart rate monitors -- which instantly tell you how fast your heart is beating -- can help you exercise at the right intensity.

What helps us balance?

DEAR DOCTOR K: What are the body parts, or systems, that help us balance?

DEAR READER: You're asking a very interesting question. I never even thought about it until I went to medical school. When I learned what I'm about to tell you, I thought it was interesting. However, I didn't appreciate how important problems with balance would be for my patients.

Should I stretch before or after I exercise?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I've been running for years and have always stretched before my morning run. Now I hear that I shouldn't stretch first. Why not?

DEAR READER: You should stretch before your run -- but perhaps not the types of stretches you've been doing. Static stretches are what most people have traditionally done, both before and after exercise. Static stretches involve adopting and holding a position that stretches a muscle or group of muscles.