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Starting an exercise program helps older adults stay mobile, study finds

As a commentary that accompanies the study notes, “Prescribing exercise may be just as important as prescribing medications — perhaps even more important in some cases.”

It’s never too late to benefit from regular and purposeful exercise.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

People aged 70 and older who embark on a regular exercise program tend to retain their mobility longer — and to recover it more quickly after a disabling incident, such as an operation or broken bone — than their peers who aren’t in such a program, according to a recent study from Yale University researchers.

The findings underscore not only the long-acknowledged health benefits of exercise (including lower risks of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers and depression), but also the importance of getting up and moving about no matter what your age.

As a commentary that accompanies the study notes, “Prescribing exercise may be just as important as prescribing medications — perhaps even more important in some cases.”

Yet, only about 1 in 5 adults in the United States meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) physical activity guidelines, which includes at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (like walking) per week. 

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Certain sectors of the population — such as people who come from minority racial and ethnic backgrounds, who are economically disadvantaged or who are elderly — are even less likely to meet those guidelines.

For older adults, maintaining mobility is particularly important. Older adults who are unable to walk independently — that is, unable to walk for more than a quarter mile without help from another person or a walker — are at increased risk for depression and other serious illnesses. They are also more likely to become socially isolated.

As background information in the current study notes, older adults tend to move “in and out of states of disability,” and “from a patient’s perspective, the total time disabled likely has a greater influence on quality of life than the initial disability event alone.”

A randomized trial

For the study, which was published last week in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers analyzed data collected from 1,635 participants in the Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders (LIFE) Study — the largest and longest study of physical activity in older people.

All the participants were aged 70 to 89, were not physically active, and had some type of physical limitation. Each had to be able to walk a quarter mile without assistance, however. 

The participants were randomly assigned to either a structured exercise program or to a health education program for about three years. The exercise program consisted mainly of walking, but also included exercises for strength, flexibility and balance.

The participants were assessed every six months for their ability to walk independently. They were diagnosed with a major mobility disability if they were unable to independently walk a quarter mile within 15 minutes.


An analysis of the data revealed that people in the exercise program spent 25 percent less time with a major movement disability than the other participants.

The exercisers were 13 percent less likely to develop a disability and 33 percent more likely to recover their mobility after an episode of disability.

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That latter statistic is particularly significant. “To enhance independent mobility, it is important not only to prevent the initial occurrence of disability but also to restore and maintain independent mobility in older persons who become disabled,” the study’s authors write.

These findings support an earlier analysis of data from the LIFE study, which had found that the structured exercise program was associated with a 30 percent lower risk of developing an initial episode of a major mobility disability.

The current study does not distinguish among the causes of people’s disabilities — whether it was from a fall or an illness, for example. Nor does the study explain how the exercise helped people recover more quickly.

Still, these results offer a strong message to older adults: It’s never too late to benefit from regular and purposeful exercise.

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Annals of Internal Medicine website, but the full study is behind a paywall, even though the study was funded with federal money from the National Institute on Aging.  You can learn more about how much (and what types) of physical activity older adults need at the CDC’s website. Be sure to talk with your doctor, however, before starting any kind of vigorous exercise program.