QUESTION: I have started and stopped exercising as many times as some people give up and start smoking. Is there anything I can do to help me maintain a consistent exercise program? I know that there are many people who have the same problem. Hope you can give all of us some suggestions. Thanks.

ANSWER: The dropout rate for those starting an exercise program is indeed high. About half of all people who do start exercising quit within the first six months. The problem with this is that improving your health and lifestyle requires consistency, so your concern is surely important. An interesting article regarding this topic appeared in the June 1988 issue of American Health. This article, written by Dr. James M. Rippe, gives 29 tips for staying with exercise. I will review these tips briefly:1. Know the stakes. Lack of exercise makes you almost twice as likely to develop heart disease and may increase your risk about as much as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

2. Chart out a specific, realistic plan. Before starting, sit down with an expert (if possible) and make out an exercise agenda.

3. Get a cholesterol test before starting and again in about 10 weeks. Exercise should raise your HDL (the good cholesterol) within about a month.

4. Take a fitness test to plot your progress. The Rockport fitness test requires you to walk a mile to check your fitness (see April 1, 1988, column in this paper or order a copy of the test from Rockport).

5. Schedule your exercise. If you schedule other things to do, schedule your exercise program.

6. Start easy. Avoiding high levels of soreness will help you continue your program. Some soreness is natural.

7. Vary activities. For example, plan ahead for activities that can be done in the winter. Variety also helps prevent boredom.

8. Choose exercises with a low injury potential. For example, walking and stationary cycling are safe, low-impact sports. Injuries are the death knell of exercise programs.

9. Consider past injuries. If you have a history of bad knees, don't choose running for your program.

10. If you use a health club, find one devoted to long-term health.

11. Consider other habits - it may be time for a lifestyle change. For instance, if you smoke, the chances of staying with exercise decrease.

12. Choose exercises you enjoy. Don't run if you don't enjoy running. If you hate sweat, consider swimming.

13. Opt for quality equipment. Nothing is worse than a bike seat that doesn't fit or weight equipment that doesn't work.

14. Be aware of the problems when leaving school. Many high school and college athletes never adjust from the active lifestyle of athletics to a lifelong fitness program.

I'll cover the rest of these hints next week.