You probably know you need to get some exercise to stay healthy and strong. But Patricia, from Chicago, recently asked if it's possible to get too much exercise. When I told her it was, she asked, "Obviously, not many elderly folks run in marathons, but how can we know what `too much' is?"

This is a wonderful question. In a moment, I'll show you a very easy way to know when you've done the right amount of exercise. But it's important to know why excessive exercise can be dangerous. The reason marathon runners can drop dead is because they overtax the repair processes of the heart. Exercise increases your metabolism, so the chemical reactions accelerate. The process generates free radicals, which can damage cells. This creates special needs in your body, including increased protective nutrients.

In excessive exercise, your body can generate more free radicals and metabolic requirements than it can tolerate or protect against. And this can happen no matter how good your diet is. Your heart may not get adequate rest time to repair free radical "dings." These dings add up and can cripple the cells before your body can repair them.

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Modest exercise, on the other hand, provides the opportunity for the cells to adapt and increase repair mechanisms. That's why I believe in a graded exercise program. Modest exercise four to five times per week gives you up to 90% of the benefits of any exercise program.

The key to a healthy heart is to gradually increase your heart rate until you reach a safe level for your age. The guide I use is to subtract your age from 220 and multiply by 0.8. For example, if you're 60, 220-60 =160; 160 x 0.8 = 128. So a heart rate of 128 is a relatively safe heart-rate target for a 60-year-old without signs of heart disease. (You should see your doctor to make sure you don't have heart disease before beginning any exercise program.)

Don't push to get to your safe heart rate the first day. Instead, slowly increase your exercise load over three to four weeks to get there. If you're exercising heavily, be sure to take plenty of free-radical and heart protective nutrients. If you have shortness of breath out of proportion to the exercise, chest pain, cramps, or any other difficulty, please check with your physician immediately.

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