The bicycles beckon. Baseball games are in full swing. Shoppers push carts laden with mulch and potting soil, rakes and trowels, flats of brightly colored flowers.

Spring is here, and those long winter hours of lounging on the sofa, a soda in one hand, the TV remote in the other and a bowl of chips and dip on the table, are over.

But before you head outdoors with visions of marathon bike rides, that elusive hole-in-one or a landscape worthy of Better Homes and Gardens, Blue Mountain Health System professionals remind you to ease into shape first.

Physical therapist Gary Higgins, who is Director of Rehabilitation Services, and Lisa Pompa, Supervisor of Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation, both urge people – especially those over 40 and those with cardiovascular problems – to take some to acclimate their bodies to more activity and to more strenuous pursuits. Ideally, you should take 6-8 weeks to get your body ready for spring and summer activities.

"We would like to remind folks that it's important to prepare yourself for those exertional activities that you like to do," Higgins said.

While gardening and sports can bring great joy, they can also bring great pain. Plunging into strenuous activities without prior conditioning can be a pain in the back – or the heart, Higgins and Pompa warn.

Gnaden Huetten has two types of programs to help people prepare their bodies for warm weather activities. For those with documented heart and lung conditions, the cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation center provides a safe, supervised path to readiness.

For those without such problems, a supervised gym, such as the Blue Mountain Health System's Healthworks Health and Wellness Center in the Carbon Plaza mall, is a good option. People who sign up are given a health assessment and individualized training program, Higgins said.

Please meet with your doctor, however, before starting any kind of training program. If you experience chest, arm or jaw pain, shortness of breath, profuse sweating, nausea, dizziness or other cardiovascular symptoms, immediately call 911.

"We're always concerned about the weekend warriors," Pompa said. "They don't do anything all week long because of lifestyle, then on the weekend they start to exercise and really go at it and end up with symptoms and maybe will ignore those symptoms."

What you think may be a pulled muscle could signal a heart attack. Pompa said it's often those people who do not have documented cardiovascular problems who are most likely to shrug off symptoms because they are not as familiar with them.

Higgins said people should look at four components of preseason conditioning: cardiovascular, flexibility, strengthening and injury prevention.

Cardiovascular conditioning, especially important after months of a languid lifestyle, is best achieved by aerobic exercise – brisk walking, jogging and cycling, for example – which uses continuous movements with minimal resistance to improve the capacity of the heart and lungs to deliver oxygen to the muscles.

Aerobic exercise is a "physical activity which strengthens your heart and improves the circulation in your vessels," Pompa said. "It is improved cardiovascular fitness that makes it easier for your muscles to perform greater levels of exercise with more efficiency."

Experts recommend 30-40 minutes of aerobic exercise three or four times a week. The intensity should be 70-85 percent of your maximum heart rate. To figure that, find you maximum heart rate (220 minus your age, multiplied by 70 or 85 percent, depending on the percentage of heart rate maximum desired).

The simplest aerobic exercise you can do is walking.

"It's inexpensive and you can do it anywhere," Pompa said. "Even before exercise, walking could be a warm-up to begin because you use your large muscle groups. Then you start your exercise, those muscles will be warm and pliable, with good blood circulation."

Flexibility is also important to avoid muscle strain and injury and to increase your range of motion. Stretching is the key to developing flexibility. Stretch slowly and hold the position for 15 seconds; repeat five times. Please don't bounce – that causes a reflex that tightens rather than loosens muscles.

Important muscle groups to stretch are the hamstrings (the large muscles on the backs of the thighs), calf muscles, hip flexors, back and shoulders. Remember to be gentle with your stretches.

Strengthening muscles is also important to avoid injury.

Lifting weights or using exercise machines that provide resistance are both good ways to increase strength. Start with light weights and warm up those muscles before getting down to the hard work. Start your workout with the large muscle groups, progressing to the smaller muscle groups. For example, start with leg presses or knee extensions, working your way down to bicep curls and sit-ups.

Strengthening the "core" muscle group – the hips, abdominals and pelvic muscles – Pompa points out, "is vital because it's the foundation for all the other movements of your body. If you have good core muscles, these activities should be a little easier and you should be able to do them more efficiently."

Just as important as getting in shape before starting summer activities is drinking enough water.

"We recommend people drink two cups of water about 15 minutes before they engage in their activities," Pompa said. "Dehydration could lead to an emergency room visit."

Getting your body ready for warm weather activities is good for everyone, but is crucial for those who have heart or lung troubles.

For Ron Fritz of Lehighton, the warmer weather means more time spent outdoors gardening and riding bikes with his grandchildren. Fritz, 68, has been strengthening and conditioning his body at the Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation Center at Blue Mountain Health System's Gnaden Huetten campus in Lehighton for four weeks after undergoing recent treatment for a heart ailment.

His doctor referred him to the center for 12 weeks of sessions.

"He needed to learn his limitations and improve his fitness levels so he's able to do those activities," Pompa said.

What can he do now that he could not do four weeks ago?

"Walk a distance," he said with a smile. "And I couldn't ride my bike before I came here."

His rehabilitation program strengthened his arms and legs as well as his heart and lungs.

"And I've lost a few pounds," he said.

Fritz, who had a heart bypass operation about 10 years ago, had the treatment after experiencing fleeting chest pain.

"It would last for a minute and then go away," he said. An arteriogram revealed two blockages, and Fritz had to have stents installed.

"He was having angina. He knew his body, and he knew that symptom wasn't normal," Pompa said. "He went to the doctor and ended up with an intervention."

For Fritz, getting into shape means being able to do what he loves – bicycling with his grandchildren, taking walks with his wife and doing gardening and landscaping – safely.

His physical conditioning at cardiac rehab, he said, "has been great. It's been great."