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Value of exercise for seniors shown in multi-center study with Stanford

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 Stanford University School of Medicine professor Abby King, PhD. She and other Stanford researchers took part in the multi-center 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, professor of health research and policy and of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, played a key role in recruiting and working with 100 study participants in the Bay Area. 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's goal was to determine whether regular exercise could keep people healthier and more independent as they age. "Exercise is one way of having a huge impact on our aging population," she said.

Previous work suggested that performance on the fitness test is predictive of future health problems. 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 goal of this study is prevention - keeping people out of nursing homes," said King.

Researchers at Stanford and other sites recruited 424 participants aged 70 to 89. Participants lived independently, but 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 two and a half 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 just over a year.

The people who exercised regularly performed better on the standardized fitness test than people who received health education, and they were better able to walk a quarter of a mile. The fitness test is scored on a scale of one to 12, and the people who exercised improved 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 study's findings held for men and women as well as for people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Indeed, as people age, they share a common 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."

Rosanne Spector | EurekAlert!
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