Exercise Program That Keeps Older Adults on Their Feet
Improve your mobility…
In old age, losing the ability to walk a short distance often means losing independence. Now researchers say they have found a treatment that, for some, can prevent that loss of mobility.
The prescription: a moderate exercise program. The program of walking, strength training, stretches and balance exercises were tested on sedentary adults ages 70 to 89, all of whom started out in declining physical condition. Results were published Tuesday in the medical journal JAMA.
While the exercise program was not a miracle cure – it did not keep people out of the hospital or prevent deaths – it did translate into more people staying on their feet over the course of the 2½-year study.
“This is the first study to show that a specific program of physical activity can work,” to keep vulnerable older people mobile, says Evan Hadley, director of the geriatrics division at the National Institute on Aging. The federal agency helped fund the study. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute also contributed.
The study included more than 1,600 people at eight centers. At the start, all could walk at least 400 meters, about a quarter mile. But none were regular exercisers and all showed signs of physical declines, such as slow walking speed.
Half were assigned to the exercise program, which included sessions at research centers and at home. They gradually worked up to a routine that included 150 minutes of walking each week. The other half came to the centers for general health classes and served as a comparison group. All were checked every six months.
Result: The exercisers were 18% less likely to fail the 400-meter walk test at any check-up and 28% less likely to lose mobility for a sustained period (at least two check-ups).
That’s a big enough difference to matter in a lot of lives, says lead author Marco Pahor, a geriatrics researcher at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
“Losing mobility is so disruptive,” he says. “People who cannot walk a quarter of a mile cannot walk around their neighborhoods to socialize; they can’t go out and run their own errands.”
Many lose the ability to live in their longtime homes, says Andrea Cheville, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Cheville, who was not involved in the new research, says “it’s very exciting” to see something that helps maintain mobility.
But she says it’s disappointing that the program did not help people stay out of hospitals or thwart death. Future studies, she says, might look at whether a more vigorous exercise program or one more integrated with other health care might have greater benefits.
It’s also unclear who will pay for such exercise programs, which cost about $1,800 a person each year in the study. The study might lead some insurers to consider the potential value, Hadley says.
Many older adults might want to pursue such an exercise routine outside a formal program, but it’s essential they check with their doctors first, Hadley says.
“Conducting this on a broad scale is certainly going to be challenging,” says Steven Counsell, a geriatrics professor at Indiana University and president-elect of the American Geriatrics Society. But, he says, “What’s really refreshing is seeing that these people who are in their 70s and 80s and pretty inactive have so much to gain.”