Health professionals have long maintained that for older adults, physical activity is important for keeping good health. Now, a new study demonstrates just how important it is. According to research led by the University of Florida and the University of Maryland, daily moderate exercise can mean the difference between becoming housebound or keeping up with everyday activities.
The research team, including co-principal investigator Jack Guralnik, PhD, of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, recently published their study - called the Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders (LIFE) Study - in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The researchers analyzed 1,635 participants ages 70 to 89 from eight different study centers across the US. All participants had sedentary behavior. At study baseline, subjects were able to walk a quarter of a mile (400 meters) in 15 minutes but were at high risk of losing their mobility.
According to co-principal investigator Marco Pahor, PhD, of the Institute of Aging at the University of Florida, populations like this are "typically understudied," even though health professionals see such patients every day. Low physical activity among older adults can increase the risk of institutionalization, hospitalization and even death. Therefore, they felt it important to study the effects of exercise among individuals who are at high risk of such events.
Moderate exercise 'increased walking ability and reduced disability'
The participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first group consisted of 818 individuals who were required to carry out daily moderate exercise. This involved walking 150 minutes a week and carrying out strength, flexibility and balance training. These subjects were monitored twice a week.
Daily moderate exercise among study participants ages 70 to 89 reduced loss of mobility by 28% and increased walking ability by 18%, according to researchers.
The second group, made up of 817 participants, were required to attend health education classes and perform stretching exercises.
All subjects were assessed every 6 months for an average of 2.6 years. At each assessment, staff members from each study center looked at participants' walking ability, body weight, pulse rate and blood pressure, among other measurements of health. Staff members were unaware of what group participants were assigned to.
At the end of the study period, the researchers found that individuals in the moderate exercise group had an 18% higher walking ability than those in the education classes group. In addition, moderate exercise was associated with a 28% reduction in the loss of mobility - determined by the ability to walk 400 meters.
Commenting on the findings, Guralnik says:
"The very purpose of the study is to provide definitive evidence that physical activity can truly improve the independence of older adults.
The fact that we had an even bigger impact on persistent disability is very good. It implies that a greater percentage of the adults who had physical activity intervention recovered when they did develop mobility disability."
However, the researchers were surprised to find that when it came to assessing the number of hospitalizations in each group, the rate was higher among individuals who carried out moderate exercise - although they point out the number was not "statistically significant."
The researchers say that since participants in the moderate exercise group received more regular monitoring, this could have resulted in higher reporting of hospitalizations. In addition, the exercise may have set off underlying health problems, such as heart conditions. The team plans to investigate this finding further.
Research 'critical' to establishing lifestyle recommendations for seniors
According to Wendy Kohrt, PhD, a professor at the University of Colorado who reviewed the study's scientific merit before it was launched, research such as this is "critical" to determining what lifestyle recommendations should be made for older adults.
"There is a general belief among the public and the scientific and medical communities that we know exercise is good for you, so why do we need to do more research in this area?" she says.
"However, we still do not know whether certain types or doses of exercise are better than others, particularly for specific health conditions or diseases. The LIFE trial demonstrated that a modest increase in physical activity has the potential to help older adults maintain functional independence."
As well as the benefits of moderate exercise on the mobility of older adults, the researchers say they plan to draw other data from the study. This will include how physical activity impacts participants' emotional well-being and social, physiological and biological factors.
This is the latest in a line of studies to investigate the health benefits of physical exercise among older adults. Medical News Today recently reported on a study led by the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, MA, which found that physical activity for people aged 65 and over may reduce the risk of heart attack. Last year, other research found that for women aged 50 and over, exercise may reduce the risk of kidney stones.