A 20-minute walk each day could help older adults stay on their feet and out of wheelchairs longer, according to a multicenter study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association today and coordinated by the University of Florida.
Researchers showed that a daily program of moderate physical activity reduced the risk of mobility disability in older adults by 18 percent compared to those who did not exercise. They also found a 28-percent reduction in the permanent loss of the ability to walk unaided.
Mobility, defined in this study as the ability to walk without assistance for at least 400 meters or about a quarter mile, is critical for aging seniors to function independently. Loss of mobility can lead to higher hospitalization and institutionalization costs, and even early death.
"These results suggest the potential for structured physical activity as a feasible and effective intervention to reduce the burden of disability among vulnerable older persons, in spite of some functional decline in late life," wrote the researchers.
"While people are aware of the benefits of physical activity, this study is the largest and longest duration randomized trial evaluating the effects of physical activity on mobility disability in older adults. It will provide the hard evidence needed to change health policy," said Abby King, PhD, the lead investigator for the Stanford field center and a professor of health research and policy and of medicine.
For this study, 1,635 sedentary men and women, age 70 to 89, were recruited by eight field centers across the United States and followed for an average of 2.6 years. All participants were able to walk a quarter mile within 15 minutes but were at risk for losing that ability.
"These are the patients who physicians see every day. This is why this study is so important: It includes a population that is typically understudied," said principal investigator Marco Pahor, MD, director of the University of Florida's Institute on Aging.
During the study, participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first group walked 150 minutes per week and did strength, flexibility and balance training. They were encouraged to stay on track with the program through weekly participation in two in-person exercise classes and several home-based physical activity sessions. The second group attended health education classes, including low-intensity stretching exercises.
King said one of the most important takeaways from the study was this: "It's never too late to gain important benefits from increased physical activity."
Study results are summarized in this JAMA Report video.
Previously: AAMC's Health Equity Research Snapshot features Stanford project on virtual health advisers, Help from a virtual friend goes a long way in boosting older adults' physical activity, Computer-generated phone calls shown to help inactive adults get - and keep - moving
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