Being Active When You Have Health Problems

Skip Navigation


When you are living with health problems, regular exercise and activity are important. They keep you healthier, give you energy, make you stronger, and help your mood.

Exercise and activity can help many health problems. When you're active, you are less likely to have problems caused by diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, and arthritis. And being active can help protect you from new health problems.

Regular exercise:

  • Helps control stress, depression, and anxiety.
  • Helps manage blood pressure and cholesterol.
  • Lowers your risk for heart attack and stroke.
  • Makes your lungs stronger.
  • Can help you reach a healthy weight.
  • Keeps your blood sugar at a healthy level.
  • Can build bone strength.

Finding what works for you

When you think of exercise, you may think of running or going to a gym. This may feel overwhelming. But exercise can be about making small changes in your physical activity. For example, parking your car in the farthest parking space from a store can be a small first step.

It can be hard to be active when you have health problems. Exercising to help control diabetes might be a challenge if arthritis makes walking painful or if heart failure slows you down. But you can choose activities that are a fit for you, like doing exercises in the water or as part of a cardiac rehab program.

With your doctor's help, you can decide what works best. Find out what is safe, what to avoid, and what kinds of choices you have. Don't be too active or get too much exercise at first. Do a little at first, and then slowly do more.

Planning to be more active

Starting to be more active when you have health problems can take a little planning. Follow these tips to help you stay safe.

  • Know your strengths and your barriers.

    When you have more than one chronic disease, there may be some physical limits on what you can do. If you push your limits, you could hurt yourself. It's also normal to have feelings that can get in the way, like fear, depression, or being self-conscious. These emotions and physical limits are called barriers.

  • Get expert advice.

    Talk to your doctor about all of your symptoms, medicines, and barriers to being active. Talk about your strengths and what you enjoy doing. If you've been feeling depressed, be sure to talk about that too. Depression can make even the simplest things seem hard.

    Ask yourself: What do you most like to do? What kinds of things get in your way? What questions do you have for your doctor?

    Go over your ideas with your doctor. Write down what you can do for exercise and what you need to be careful about. Set a long-term goal you can reach, and write the small steps you will take toward it. Working on these small steps will make it more likely that you will achieve your long-term goal. When you reach your goal, find a way to celebrate it. Then set another goal.

    Your doctor may work with you on an exercise prescription. This clearly sets out what is safe for you, such as your target heart rate range and any need for medical supervision while you exercise. If you need medical staff with you when you exercise, your doctor will suggest that you sign up for an exercise rehabilitation (rehab) program.

  • Know when to stop and when to call your doctor.

    When you exercise, it's normal to have some minor muscle and joint soreness. But other signs may point to something more serious. Work with your doctor to know when to stop and when to call.

Doing activity safely

You want to live life to its fullest, but you don't want to hurt yourself. Health experts suggest that older adults and people with long-term health problems try to:

  • Stretch for at least 10 minutes a day, 2 days a week.
  • Strengthen the major muscle groups with 8 to 10 exercises a day, at least 2 days a week.
  • Do at least 2½ hours (150 minutes) of moderate exercise a week. One way to do this is to be active 30 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week.

Follow these basic tips for exercising when you have health problems.

  • Be as active as you can as often as you can.

    But be aware of your body's limits.

  • Set goals that you can reach.

    If you expect too much, it's easy to get discouraged and stop exercising.

  • Keep your emergency phone numbers with you at all times.
  • Don't be too active at first.

    This could mean starting out with just a few minutes of exercise. Each day or so, slightly increase how long and how hard you're active.

  • Find a group, class, or buddy you can enjoy being active with.
  • Stay within your doctor's guidelines.

    For example, if you have angina, walk just a little slower than the pace that gives you chest pain. If you have arthritis of the knee or hip, walk on level ground and avoid hills. Even better, exercise in the water. If you aren't sure of your safe range, work with a physical therapist to find it.

  • Do not exercise if your condition is worse than usual.

    For example, if you have heart failure, don't exercise during a flare-up.

These are basic tips. A slow walk might feel hard, easy, or somewhere in between for you, depending on your health and fitness levels. You and your doctor can decide what's best for you.


Current as of: June 5, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.

The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.