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Start moving—no matter what shape you’re in

Question: What medical therapy can increase your stamina, slow or reverse the aging process, lift depression and reduce anxiety? By the way, it can also prevent fractures and increase your life span—all for free!

Answer: Exercise. And the good news is it’s not just for the fit and trim.
Even those who are disabled by chronic illness or those who are elderly and frail can improve their ability to function in their daily lives by becoming more active. Here’s how you can go about reclaiming strength, flexibility and endurance:

  1. See your doctor.
    Certain medical conditions can make exercise risky. Is it safe for you to exercise? At what level? Should you exercise in a medically supervised program? Your doctor may recommend an exercise stress test to help answer those questions (see “What is a stress test?”).
  2. Do something—anything.
    Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous to improve your health and your ability to function. So don’t be overwhelmed by guidelines that recommend high-intensity exercise. Instead, do what you can. If it’s an effort to get off the sofa and walk to the door, just do that—only do it more often, say hourly or every 15 minutes. Research shows that even people who are extremely frail can increase their gait speed or decrease the time it takes to rise out of a chair—if they exercise.
  3. Break activity down into small time increments.
    If you don’t have the time or energy for 30 minutes of continuous exercise, spread it out. Start with 10 minutes of activity, then do it again and again—for a total of 30 minutes.
  4. Make it routine.
    Ideally, exercise will become as automatic as brushing your teeth. So choose a time of day that’s convenient and stick with it until it’s a habit.
  5. If possible, walk.
    Walking strengthens your heart and your bones, making you less susceptible to fractures. (Be sure to arrange an inclement weather plan, such as mall walking.)
  6. Include strengthening exercises.
    Performing simple calisthenics or lifting handheld weights can prevent weakness. And you can exercise your arms without even getting out of a chair. Begin with three sets of five repetitions and work toward a goal of three sets of 15 repetitions. When using weights, start by flexing and lifting the weight of your arms and empty hands. After eight to 10 weeks, use tomato-paste cans (6 ounces), then advance to soup cans (10 3/4 ounces) and eventually to kidney-bean cans (15 ounces). After that, you may want to purchase 2- or 3-pound weights.
  7. Go slowly.
    Once you’ve established your current activity level, increase it. A long-term goal: A minimum of 30 minutes of exercise almost every day. But those who are physically active longer (60 to 90 minutes, say) or more intensely will derive greater benefits, such as body weight control and sustained weight loss.