Elderly patients who participated in a structured exercise program reduced the amount of time spent suffering from major disability by 25 percent compared to their peers who did not. The findings suggest that adopting a regular routine of moderate physical activity, such as walking, helps seniors recover quicker after suffering a disability and maintain independence over time. Data from a secondary analysis of the Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders (LIFE) study are published in Annals of Internal Medicine.
Research has shown that older adults often transition between states of independence and disability over time. Seniors who suffer a mobility disability are less likely to remain independent and have higher rates of morbidity, mortality, and diminished quality of life, among other negative effects. Therefore, it is an important goal of clinical medicine and public health to reduce the burden of major mobility disability on older adults.
The LIFE study compared the effects of a structured physical activity program to a health education program on more than 1,600 adults between the ages 70 and 89 who had been sedentary but were able to walk at least a quarter of a mile unassisted. Seniors in the exercise group mainly walked, and also performed some strength, flexibility, and balance training exercises. Over 3.5 years, participants in both groups were assessed for major mobility disability. Compared to the health education group, exercisers were less likely to experience disability in the first place, more likely to recover if they did suffer a disability, and were less likely to have a subsequent disability episode.
According to the authors of an accompanying editorial, these data add to the growing literature on the benefits of physical activity, especially for vulnerable populations. The authors suggest that prescribing exercise may be more important than prescribing medications, in some cases. Medical schools and health systems should give clinicians the training, tools, and support they need to address inactivity as they would any other health risk.