Opinion

Even light exercise has significant health benefits for older adults | Gustafson

That regular exercise is important for good health is old news. From controlling weight and staying in shape, to fending off disease, to aging well, being physically active is a central component of wellbeing. As much as this message is considered to be self-evident, surprisingly, there has never been actual scientific proof that it is true.

For instance, while countless studies have suggested that exercise can be beneficial in many ways, including for slowing the aging process in older adults, it can only be said with certainty that most people who are healthy do in fact exercise – but not that their exercising makes them healthier. Now, a new study tried to show just that.

Unlike other research projects of its kind, this one specifically sought out participants who were not especially fit but adhered to a mostly sedentary lifestyle and even showed signs of age-related physical decline.

“For the first time, we have directly shown that exercise can effectively lessen or prevent the development of physical disability in a population of extremely vulnerable elderly people,” said Dr. Marco Pahor, the director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Florida in Gainesville and lead author of the study report, to the New York Times.

For the study, the researchers recruited 1,635 men and women between the ages of 70 and 89, who were mostly sedentary but still able to walk independently a distance of at least 400 meters (a quarter-mile). Then they split the participants up in two groups, assigning one to a regular exercise regimen, the other to a health education program that did not include exercising.

Over a period of about two and a half years, the exercising group showed 18 percent fewer incidences of temporary physical disability and 28 percent reduced likelihood of long-term to permanent disability compared to their non-exercising counterparts. But still, both groups had about the same number of periodical impairments. Also, more of the exercisers had to be hospitalized at one or more times, perhaps due to underlying medical conditions that were discovered over the course of the study. And some of the participants who underwent health education started exercising on their own account as well, which makes the distinction between the groups less clear.

Still, the findings of the study are valuable. For starters, they show that it is never too late to become physically more active and reap the benefits. Second, they demonstrate that even low-impact exercise like walking can be effective if done regularly. For seniors, in particular, it is important to focus, besides weight control and muscle and bone health, on flexibility and gait – not only to maintain physical fitness but to counteract mental decline as well.

As a number of studies have found, exercise can play a crucial role in the prevention of age-related dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease. That in itself should motivate everyone to take a few extra steps…

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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