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Stanford University School of Medicine

More evidence on the importance of physical activity for older adults

Major mobility disability can significantly diminish the quality of life for seniors. Being unable to move independently to perform daily activities that require walking can take an emotional and physical toll. It can also worsen other health conditions and increase health-care costs associated with hospitalizations.

study published earlier this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine shows that exercise programs can ease the burden of mobility issues among older adults.

The new findings are from the multi-center Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders Study. Earlier data showed that moderate physical activity could lower the risk of the onset and duration of a major mobility disability event. Building on this idea, the new study analyzed the effects of physical activity in reducing the long-term burden of disability in the elderly population.

Because major mobility disability is a condition that can come and go, researchers think preventing an initial occurrence is important, but may not be enough. This study focused on reestablishing mobility, defined as the ability to walk 400 meters without assistance, after an event of MMD and maintaining it through physical activity. They recruited relatively inactive 70- to 89-year-old adults to participate in either a moderate physical activity program that focused on walking, strength building, flexibility and balance exercises, or in a workshop-based health education program.

The researchers found that participants enrolled in the physical activity program had a 25 percent reduction in time that they had MMD over a 2.7-year period, compared with those in the health education program. Specifically, the participants in the physical activity program had quicker recoveries after onsets of MMD and showed lower risk for subsequent re-occurrences of the disability.

Abby King, PhD, a Stanford professor of medicine and of health research and policy, was one of the co-authors of the study. "These new analyses indicate that beginning and sustaining a program of regular physical activity that includes both endurance and strengthening activities can have positive impacts at several points in older adults' lives," King said. "Not only can it help to prevent or delay the initial onset of mobility disability, but it also can help older adults recover sufficiently to diminish the chance of further episodes of disability."

Yasemin Saplakoglu is a science writing intern in the medical school's Office of Communication and Public Affairs. She received her bachelors degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Connecticut and is now pursuing graduate studies in science communication at UC Santa Cruz.

Previously: Moderate exercise program for older adults reduces mobility disability, study showsComputer-generated phone calls shown to help inactive adults get - and keep - moving and Exercise programs shown to decrease pain, improve health in group of older adults
Photo by Michael G. Chan

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