Elderly at risk for physical disabilities exercise, improve physical function

December 17, 2007

Elderly adults at risk for physical disabilities are able to adhere to a regular program of moderate exercise for one year, a recent study of 213 men and women suggests. Led by corresponding author Roger Fielding, Ph.D., of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (USDA HNRCA) at Tufts University, the authors observed that improvement in physical function was related to the participants' ability to adhere to the physical activity regimen.

"At the beginning, middle and end of the study the participants were tested on their walking speed, strength, flexibility and balance to gauge their physical function," said Fielding, director of the Nutrition, Exercise Physiology and Sarcopenia Laboratory at the USDA HNRCA. "We saw a greater improvement in physical function in the participants who reported exercising 150 minutes or more per week."

The study, published in the November issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, analyzed data from the physical intervention arm of the Lifestyle Intervention and Independence for Elders Pilot (Life-P). The participants ranged in age from 70 to 89 years-old, were sedentary when they enrolled, had health problems, such as cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis, and some physical limitations such as difficulty walking or climbing stairs. They followed a moderate exercise program that consisted of walking, strength, flexibility, and balance training.

For the first six months of the study, the participants exercised under supervision at one of four university centers and at home. Center visits were optional during the second six months. The participants filled out surveys to track their adherence to the physical activity regimen during the center visits and at home. The authors observed that physical activity adherence was consistent with earlier studies that followed older adults for shorter durations.

A future randomized trial would study a larger population of elderly for a longer period of time. "Larger studies are needed to confirm that exercise can improve physical function in elderly at high risk for physical disabilities," said Fielding, who is also a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and School of Medicine at Tufts University. "What we found, however, is that this group can commit to a regular program of physical activity in a long-term randomized trial and the better their adherence to a program of physical activity the greater their improvements in physical functioning."
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This study was supported by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Fielding, RA, Katula, J, Miller, ME, Abbott-Pillola, K, Jordan, A, Glynn, NW, Goodpaster, B, Walkup, MP, King, AC, Rejeski, WJ, and for the Life Study Investigators. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2007 (November); 39 (11): 1997-2004. "Activity Adherence and Physical Function in Older Adults with Functional Limitations.

The Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University is the only independent school of nutrition in the United States. The school's eight centers, which focus on questions relating to famine, hunger, poverty, and communications, are renowned for the application of scientific research to national and international policy. For two decades, the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University has studied the relationship between good nutrition and good health in aging populations. Tufts research scientists work with federal agencies to establish the USDA Dietary Guidelines, the Dietary Reference Intakes, and other significant public policies.

If you are a member of the media interested in learning more about this topic, or speaking with a faculty member at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, or another Tufts health sciences researcher, please contact Andrea Grossman at 617-636-3728 or Christine Fennelly at 617-636-3707.

Tufts University, Health Sciences Campus

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