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Study proves activity helps maintain mobility as we age

A new University of Florida study shows daily moderate physical activity may mean the difference between seniors being able to keep up everyday activities or becoming housebound. In fact, moderate physical activity helped aging adults maintain their ability to walk at a rate 18 percent higher than older adults who did not exercise.

The study – the first of its kind to look at frail, older adults – proves that physical activity can help these people maintain their mobility and dodge physical disability.

“The very purpose of the study is to provide definitive evidence that physical activity can truly improve the independence of older adults,” said principal investigator Marco Pahor, director of UF’s Institute on Aging.

What’s more, moderate physical activity not only helped older adults maintain mobility but also helped prevent the occurrence of long-term mobility loss. Co-principal investigator Jack Guralnik, a professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said there was a 28 percent reduction in people permanently losing the ability to walk easily.

“The fact that we had an even bigger impact on persistent disability is very good,” Guralnik said. “It implies that a greater percentage of the adults who had physical activity intervention recovered when they did develop mobility disability.”

Researchers showed that prescribed daily physical activity can prevent older adults’ loss of mobility, defined in the study as the ability to walk 400 meters, or about a quarter of a mile. Although 400 meters might sound like an arbitrary number, it’s an important figure for older adults, researchers said.

“Four hundred meters is once around the track, or from the parking lot to the store, or two or three blocks around your neighborhood,” Guralnik said. “It’s an important distance in maintaining an independent life.”

The Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders, or LIFE, study, took place across eight field centers at universities across the country.

The researchers recruited 1,635 sedentary men and women ages 70 to 89 for the study. The participants could walk a quarter mile within 15 minutes but were at risk of losing that ability. Low physical performance can be a predictor of early death and higher hospitalization and institutionalization rates, and patients with low physical performance are not often recruited to large studies, Pahor said.

“These are people who are patients we see every day,” he said. “This is why this study is so important: It includes a population that is typically understudied.”

The participants were randomly separated into two groups and followed for an average of 2.6 years. The first group of 818 walked 150 minutes per week and did strength, flexibility and balance training. They were monitored by two visits to field centers per week. The second group of 817 attended health education classes and performed stretching exercises. This phase of the study occurred between February 2010 and December 2013.