Exercise may prolong seniors' independence

Abby C. King

On your mark, get set, go! Seniors who acquaint themselves with that well-known mantra may live more independent lives, according to new research.

A study, which appears in the November issue of Journal of Gerontology, is the first to show that physical activity can improve a person's score on a standardized test of physical mobility, said Abby King, PhD, professor of health research and policy and of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. She and other Stanford researchers took part in the multicenter study demonstrating that elderly people who increase their levels of regular exercise perform better on a test measuring balance, walking speed and ability to rise from a chair.

Researchers at the University of Florida and the National Institute of Aging coordinated the work. The Stanford team, led by King, played a key role in recruiting and working with 100 study participants in the Bay Area, out of a total of 424 nationwide. The research was a preliminary study, and the next step is to conduct a full-scale, long-term trial on the benefits of exercise in the elderly.

"We are encouraged by these results, which demonstrate that a well-designed program combining aerobic, strength, balance and flexibility exercises can make a difference for those who are at high risk of losing mobility function," said Jack Guralnik, MD, PhD, a co-leader of the study from the National Institute of Aging.

King said the study sought to determine whether regular exercise could keep people healthier and more independent as they age. "The goal of this study is prevention—keeping people out of nursing homes," she said. "Exercise is one way of having a huge impact on our aging population."

According to King, earlier research had shown that seniors with lower scores die earlier and are also more likely to end up in assisted-care facilities. The participants in this study were aged 70 to 89 and lived independently, though they were at risk of developing an age-related disability, said King.

The study leaders randomly divided participants into two groups. Half the seniors spent approximately 2.5 hours a week walking at a moderate pace. They also strengthened and stretched their leg muscles. The second group of seniors received education on healthy living, including advice on nutrition, medication and foot care. The study followed participants for slightly more than a year.

The people who exercised regularly performed better on the standardized fitness test than people who received health education alone, and were better able to walk a quarter of a mile. The test is scored on a scale of one to 12, and the people who exercised upped their scores by one point on average, which is considered substantial. They were also less likely to suffer from an age-related disability that hampered their movement.

The findings held for men and women as well as for people of different ethnic backgrounds. Indeed, regardless of background, as people age, they share a concern. "When you ask seniors what they are most afraid of, they often don't put cancer or other specific age-related diseases at the top of the list," said King. "They say loss of independence."

The study was conducted at three centers besides Stanford—the Cooper Institute in Dallas, the University of Pittsburgh and Wake Forest University—and was funded by the National Institute on Aging. Investigators from Tufts, Yale, UC-San Diego, UCLA and the NIA also worked on the study.

Ewen Callaway is a science-writing intern in the Office of Communication & Public Affairs at the School of Medicine.