Written by: Jeffery Sankoff, MD
Training for and racing in triathlons has overall positive effects on one’s health. An annual physical exam is one way of mitigating potential health risks associated with exercise. Most people should consult a physician for advice, check-ups or tests before beginning or continuing an intensive exercise program. Whether an annual physical exam is necessary for everyone is subject to debate. But certain people should see a physician before starting and then continuing an exercise program.
People of any age who are obese. The risk of heart disease and early death from heart attack dramatically increase with excess weight, and high blood pressure and diabetes are also seen more frequently in obese people, compounding these risks. Because obese individuals put significant stress on their cardiovascular system when exercising, they should have a complete physical along with tests to evaluate for cardiac disease. Furthermore, any chest pains or shortness of breath with minimal exertion should prompt one to stop his or her exercise program until a physician can be consulted.
People who smoke. Smoking is responsible for more disease than obesity, so smokers should see a physician to screen for undetected cardiac or lung disease before starting an exercise regimen.
People with pre-existing medical conditions. Anyone with a pre-existing medical condition requiring medication should see his or her physician before beginning and while maintaining an exercise regimen. Depending on the condition, it may be necessary to change the medication or the dosage. At the very least, one should watch for adverse effects and determine if medication requirements have changed over time. Those with diabetes or heart problems will need the most intensive monitoring, while less severe ailments, such as chronic hypertension, high cholesterol levels or asthma, need only occasional medical supervision.
Men over 40 and women over 45. This is a broad recommendation. However, the risk of developing a medical condition that could be impacted by physical activity increases with age. A significant percentage of men over 40 and women over 45 will have developed silent heart disease or hypertension, and a physical examination can help detect and treat these conditions before they really threaten your training. These are also good ages for for screenings for high cholesterol, breast and colon cancer as well as diabetes and hypertension, no matter how good your pre-existing health may be.
Those with a family history of sudden death at a young age. There are many causes of sudden death at an early age, but most are related to hereditary disorders affecting the heart or brain. Thus, it is of the utmost importance for anyone with a family history of unexplained sudden death at a young age, and especially for those starting an exercise program, to be seen by a physician and undergo any tests deemed necessary to rule out a potentially fatal condition.
Annual physicals, although extremely important, do not reduce potential health risks associated with exercise to zero. Fortunately, for most triathletes, such exams are not required but rather preventative options.
Train hard, train healthy.