by Central Washington Senior Times

A study described as the largest and longest randomized trial of physical activity in elderly men and women at risk of disability has found that structured physical activity of moderate intensity is more effective than a health education program with just physical stretching in reducing the risk of disability. The physical activity group significantly reduced their risk of losing the ability to walk 400 meters (about a quarter mile).

Mobility-the ability to walk without assistance-is a critical characteristic for functioning independently. Reduced mobility is common in older adults and is an independent risk factor for illness, hospitalization, disability and death. Limited evidence has suggested that physical activity may help prevent mobility disability; however, there have been no definitive clinical trials examining whether physical activity prevents or delays mobility disability, according to background information in the article. The study was released online by the Journal of the American Medical Association to coincide with its presentation at the American College of Sports medicine annual meeting. Marco Pahor, M.D., of the University of Florida, Gainesville, and colleagues with the Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders study, randomly assigned sedentary men and women (age 70 to 89) who were able to walk 400 meters to a structured, moderate-intensity physical activity program. This program with 818 participants was conducted in a center and at a home that included aerobic, resistance, and flexibility training activities. Another group of 817 participants were assigned to a health education program, which consisted of workshops on topics relevant to older adults and upper extremity stretching exercises. The groups participated for an average of 20.6 years. Participants were enrolled at 8 centers across the country. Major mobility disability (loss of ability to walk 400 meters) was experienced by 246 participants in the physical activity group and 290 participants in the health education group.

Persistent mobility disability was experienced by 14.7 percent of participants in the physical activity group and 19.8 percent of participants in the health group. A subgroup with lower physical function at study entry, representing 45 percent of the study population, received considerable benefit from the physical activity intervention.

“These results suggest the potential for structured physical activity as a feasible and effective intervention to reduce the burden of disability among vulnerable older persons, in spite of functional decline in late life. To our knowledge, the LIFE study is the largest and longest duration randomized trial of physical activity in older persons,” according to the authors.