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If you didn’t exercise when you were younger, it could be dangerous to start when you’re older.

“Many people think they’re too old to start an exercise program,” says Tufts University’s Miriam Nelson. “They think it’s unsafe because they have heart disease or diabetes or because they’re too out of shape to start.”

You’re never too old to start, says Nelson. And she ought to know. In one Tufts study, the participants were frail nursing-home residents whose ages ranged from 72 to 98. After just ten weeks, strength-training improved their muscle strength, ability to climb stairs, and walking speed.1 “When they see what a difference it makes, they’re thrilled,” says Nelson.
The same goes for people with chronic diseases. “People say they can’t exercise because they have arthritis,” she adds. “But we see some of the greatest benefits in people with arthritis. Exercise reduces pain and increases range of motion, strength, and mobility.”
That doesn’t mean that anyone can plunge into a bout of vigorous exercise, regardless of health history. In a recent study, ordinarily inactive people — especially men who had high cholesterol or angina or were smokers or obese — were ten times more likely to have a heart attack within an hour of exerting themselves (usually by jogging or heavy lifting) than at other times.2 Anyone with multiple risk factors for heart disease should check with a physician and start slowly.
As for the all-too-common “I don’t have time to exercise,” Nelson responds, “somehow, you’ve got to make the time, or you’re going to have medical problems like heart disease, diabetes, or osteoporosis. And it will take a lot more time to deal with them than it takes to exercise.”

1 N. Eng. J. Med 330: 1769, 1994.
2 J. Amer. Med. Assoc. 282: 1731, 1999.