Hard evidence about the benefits of exercise for elderly and infirm individuals is rare. This shortage makes the report published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) on Tuesday very valuable. The long-running study proposes that exercising regularly, which includes walking, has the benefit of reducing significantly the chances that frail or sedentary elderly people will be rendered disabled.
The lead author, Dr. Marco Pahor, is the director of the Institute on Aging at University of Florida, Gainesville. He said that this is the first time it has been shown directly how exercise has the potential to prevent or lessen physical disabilities from developing in a vulnerable elderly population.
There have been many epidemiological studies done that have resulted in correlations between exercise, elderly and healthier, longer lives. These studies, however, have only proven this fact for older people who are already healthy and active. Other studies have accomplished much of the same, but on a smaller scale and randomized.
This particular study, Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders, or LIFE, trial, stands out. In 2010, eight research centers and universities started recruiting their volunteers. Their criterion for being selected was unusual, but it served a purpose. While most studies regarding exercise use healthy subjects, the researchers in this study wanted to use subjects who were infirm, sedentary and even on the verge of frailty.
1,635 women and men who were between 70 and 89 years old were recruited. All of them scored nine or lower on a 12-point rating scale used for assessing elderly people’s physical functioning. About half of the volunteers had an eight or below. All were able to walk, however, without aid for one quarter of a mile.
The volunteers were assigned randomly to one of two groups, either education or exercise. The education group was instructed to pay a visit to their research center about once per month. There they would learn about health care, nutrition and topics regarding aging.
The volunteers assigned to the exercise group also were given aging information. They began a walking program coupled with light lower-body training with ankle weights. They were also expected to visit their research center two times per week for group walks with a supervisor. This group was instructed, as well, to do three or four exercise sessions on their own.
At six month intervals, the researchers would check the volunteers’ physical functioning. They paid specific attention to whether the subjects were still able to walk the quarter mile on their own. Each branch of the study continued for what averaged out to be 2.6 years.
By the end of the experiment, the exercising group was approximately 18 percent less liable to experience episodes of physical disability. The group was also 28 percent less liable to become persistently, even permanently, disabled.
Cautioning that the purpose of the LIFE study is not to inspire older people to start exercising alone without supervision, Dr. Pahor suggests talking to a physician first, and looking for a group of other elderly people with whom to exercise. Having work-out buddies can add an important social dynamic.
An 82 year old Gainesville resident, Mildred Johnston, was one of the volunteers. She and two friends she made during the study still do a weekly walk together. She said that the exercising has altered her understanding of what aging really means. It is no longer about how much help she needs from other people. Now she realizes what she can do for herself.
The benefits of exercise for sedentary, or frail, elderly people has now been proven. Not only do they become less likely to seriously hurt themselves, but they improve their diets and other habits. They also acquire feelings of community, independence and inner strength.
By Stacy Lamy