You should discuss getting fit with a health care professional before you begin attempting to improve your fitness level on your own, particularly if you haven't been active in awhile. You absolutely should discuss your fitness plans before you start if you have any chronic conditions or are over age 50.

If you go to a health care professional for an assessment, he or she may ask you some questions about chest pain, faintness or dizziness, bone or joint pain and any medications you may be taking. Next, he or she will probably check the health of your heart and joints, measure your blood pressure and weight and determine if you have a hernia or diabetes. These issues may affect how vigorously you may exercise or which types of exercises you should not do. If you have heart disease or risk factors for it, you may be asked to have an electrocardiogram while exercising, commonly called a stress test. During this test, you walk on a treadmill while the health care professional monitors your heart's activity.

In other cases, it may be your health care professional who first brings up the idea of your starting a fitness program. He or she may make this recommendation if you have a high blood pressure or a high cholesterol level, are overweight or have a high percentage of body fat, or are losing bone density (a precursor to osteoporosis).

Your health care professional also may recommend a fitness regimen if you have developed or are developing one of a variety of diseases or chronic conditions. While he or she will also prescribe a course of treatment specific to your condition, getting fitter and being more physically active can actually slow the onset of disease or improve your symptoms. For example, strong muscles can help women with osteoarthritis protect their joints and bones by improving stability and absorbing shock. Regular exercise also helps women with chronic lung disease improve endurance and reduce shortness of breath. It also is an important part of controlling blood sugar for women with diabetes. Exercise plays an important role in strengthening the bones of women suffering from osteoporosis as well as protecting younger women's bones from becoming thin and fragile, and may even increase life expectancy for women with heart disease.

Your health care professional can give you advice about a program suited to your health needs and fitness goals. He or she also may refer you to a fitness professional or a hospital-based fitness class to provide guidance while you're getting started.