Physicians and physiologists alike have long known that exercise can help keep older people healthy and active. A study from the University of Florida released Tuesday suggests exercise can help frail older people maintain mobility and ward off disability.
The UF-based Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders, or LIFE, study was conducted at eight field centers, including in Gainesville and the Jacksonville Brooks Rehabilitation. The other centers were at Northwestern University, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, the University of Pittsburgh, Stanford University, Tufts University, Wake Forest School of Medicine and Yale University.
The results, published in the May issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, were presented yesterday at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, in Orlando.
One of the key findings of the LIFE study is that moderate physical activity helps aging adults maintain their ability to walk at a rate 18 percent higher than older adults who did not exercise.
“The very purpose of the study is to provide definitive evidence that physical activity can truly improve the independence of older adults,” said the study’s principal investigator Marco Pahor, director of the UF’s Institute on Aging.
Another finding was that moderate physical activity helps older adults maintain mobility and avoid long-term mobility loss. Specifically, a 28 percent reduction in people permanently losing the ability to walk easily was observed, according to co-principal investigator Jack Guralnik, a professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
“The fact that we had an even bigger impact on persistent disability is very good,” said Guralnik, who also holds an adjunct professorship at the UF Institute on Aging. “It implies that a greater percentage of the adults who had physical activity intervention recovered when they did develop mobility disability.”
The study subjects were 1,635 sedentary men and women ages 70- 89 who were at risk of losing their ability to walk a quarter-mile in 15 minutes or less. Studies have suggested this sort of reduction in physical ability is associated with higher mortality and an increased hospitalization and institutionalization.
Nevertheless, people in this age group with reduced physical abilities are rarely the subject of studies, according to Pahor.
“These are people who are patients we see every day,” Pahor said. “This is why this study is so important: It includes a population that is typically understudied.”
The study participants were divided into two group, those who walked 150 minutes per week and did strength, flexibility and balance training and those who took health education classes and performed stretching exercises.
The researchers followed the groups from February 2010 until December 2013.
Staff members, who were not told which study participants were in which group, assessed the participants every six months.
The factors they recorded included participants’ ability to walk and their body weight, blood pressure and pulse rate.
Wendy Kohrt, professor of medicine in the division of geriatric medicine at the University of Colorado, said the LIFE study fills gaps in researchers’ knowledge of the types of people enrolled in the study.
“As an exercise scientist, I believe this type of research is absolutely critical to establish scientific evidence on which to make recommendations for how lifestyle can beneficially influence health status,” said Kohrt, who reviewed the scientific merit of the study before its launch.
According to Pahor and Guralnik, there is a lot of data from the study that awaits review. This includes the effects of physical activity on the participants’ emotional well-being.
The research team also plans to determine how physical activity impacted the participants’ physiological, social and biological factors.