POSTED MAY 28, 2014, 2:19 PM , UPDATED MAY 29, 2014, 12:52 PM
Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
If you want to stay healthy and mobile well into old age, start walking today—even if you’ve already edged into “old age.”
That’s the conclusion of a report from the Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders (LIFE) trial, published online yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The trial included more than 1,600 men and women between the ages of 70 and 89. None exercised regularly, and all were relatively frail. Half were randomly assigned to an exercise program that included daily walking plus strength and balance exercises. The other half took part in education workshops on healthy aging that included some gentle stretching routines.
After 2½ years, the volunteers in the exercise group were 28% less likely to have become disabled (defined by the inability to walk about 400 yards without help) compared to those in the education group. They were also 18% less likely to have had any episode of physical disability.
The improvements, while promising, probably don’t capture the real benefit of exercise. That’s because some of the people in the workshops, who learned how exercise can lead to healthier aging, became more physically active on their own. If none of the workshop and stretch people exercised, the results of the structured program would have been more impressive.
Longer life with less disability
In 1914, the average child born in the United States had a life expectancy of about 55 years. Today’s children can expect to live closer to 80 years. For some, those “extra” years will be healthy, active, independent years. For others, old age will mean frailty and dependence on others.
Independence can be defined as the ability to perform basic activities of daily living without help. These activities include:
• bathing or showering
• getting in and out of bed or a chair
• using a toilet
Walking without assistance is probably the one that most determines if a person can live independently.
Older people who are physically more active and who exercise regularly are more likely to walk independently and do other activities of daily living on their own compared to sedentary elders. Is it possible for inactive folks to change this scenario?
According to today’s report from the LIFE trial, the answer is yes. A structured exercise program can make a difference even among older individuals who do not currently exercise.
Get started now
Some older people may have the impression that they have passed the age at which starting an exercise program will do them any good. According to the LIFE results, taking up exercise at any age offers benefits down the road.
Starting an exercise program can be a challenge no matter what stage of life you are in. It’s best to start slow. Exercising for just 10 minutes to begin with is great. Then gradually work your way up.
The goals for the volunteers in the LIFE trial are good ones for all of us. They include:
• Get at least 150 minutes per week of walking or other moderate intensity exercise
• Do resistance training with weights or machines two or three times a week, but not two days in a row.
• Stretch and do other activities that improve flexibility and balance every day.
Exercise is a good investment
The lead author of the study, Dr. Marco Pahor of the University of Florida, estimated that the exercise program cost about $1,800 per participant per year. That may sound like a lot, but keep in mind that it included instructors and monitors and physical activity checkups. Also keep in mind that $1,800 a year is a lot less than the cost of caring for someone who can’t perform basic activities of daily living.
For me, there’s another key message to this report, one that we are seeing over and over again from research: You’re never too old to exercise.