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When to Limit Physical Activity

Nina Ghamrawi, MS, RD, CDE
February 11, 2022
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You may have been told to reduce or stop exercise with your current or recent condition. Under most circumstances, reducing exercise is acceptable, but if you have been told to stop exercise altogether, there are likely still some movements you can do, with restrictions. Movement is good for the body, and the mind. Here are some reasons why your doctor may recommend that you slow or stop exercise, and what you can do about it.

Exercise is Great for You!

In fact, the NLM summarizes over 26 common chronic conditions for which exercise is known to be helpful. While we must be careful about the amount and type of exercise that we do, to maintain our health, we should not stop moving entirely (but it’s always ok to take a rest-day). The best alternative is to substitute our regular exercise for less strenuous or different types movements, instead of stopping altogether. Here are a few situations where we may need to reduce or change exercise.

When You Have a Specific Medical Condition

If you have any of the following conditions, you’ll likely be told to reduce or temporarily stop exercise for the benefit of your heart, lungs, or oxygen levels for the brain.

  • Heart attack within the recent 3 wks, recent embolism (blocked artery)
  • You’ve been diagnosed with inflammation in or around the heart, or thrombophlebitis (arterial inflammation)
  • New onset atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat)
  • Severe Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) leading to breathing difficulties which limit your ability to do even simple tasks like eating or standing. Even in such a situation, strengthening exercises and movement is still encouraged in whatever amount is tolerable to you and acceptable by your doctor.
  • Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) in stage 4, causing difficulties for your heart to pump blood when exercising - leading to severe shortness of breath, or if you had a significant 3 lbs or more weight gain in the last 1-3 days.
  • If your systolic blood pressure decreases with exercise, or if your resting pulse rate is over 100bpm
  • Recent epileptic seizure

If you have had any of the above situations arise, you should be cautious about exercising, and discuss with your doctor about your symptoms and concerns before returning to exercise.

You may also have been told to keep your blood pressure under a certain level when you exercise. In these cases, while intense exercise is not recommended, you may still be able to do light activities providing you rest frequently, and check your blood pressure often. Talk to your doctor about what you CAN do so that you maintain as much mobility as possible.

When You Have Physical Movement Restrictions

If you’ve been told to reduce activity for a time, such as post-surgery, you may have some physical barriers to adding exercise to your routine. Here are some examples of situations where you’d want to restrict movement.

  • Broken or strained limbs
  • Healing open wounds or surgery sites
  • Chronic pain - while we may want to restrict movement with chronic pain, instead the recommendation is (1, 2, 3) to seek physical therapy and medical opinions before you exercise. With chronic pain, the right type of exercise, including stretching, can really help you, but the wrong type of exercise can actually be harmful.

Most likely, there are still some movements that you can do - you’ll need to discuss these with your doctor and physical therapist. If you firmly believe you can do some movement or activity, but you've been advised against doing that activity, get a second opinion first. Do not go against medical advice.

Takeaways

Besides always double checking with your doctor if you have recent heart conditions, surgeries, or severe shortness of breath, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends that you see your doctor before starting a moderate or vigorous exercise routine if:

  • You have heart disease, kidney disease, or type 1 or 2 diabetes, but no symptoms, and you don't normally exercise
  • You have any symptoms of heart disease, kidney disease, or type 1 or 2 diabetes
  • You are pregnant and suffering with any of the above conditions

When in doubt, check it out: If you're unsure of your health status, or are new to exercising, speak with your doctor before starting a new exercise program. Working with your doctor ahead of time can help you plan the exercise program that's right for you, and get you started on an exercise schedule that is tolerable, reasonable, and long-lasting.

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