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Structured Exercise Program Can Enhance Seniors’ Physical Function, Study Suggests

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – A structured exercise program can boost the physical well-being of sedentary seniors who show early signs of losing independent function. The results hold promise that many older adults can lower their risk of major walking disability, according to researchers from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center and colleagues.

The results of the pilot study, published in the November issue of the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences and presented today at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America show that sedentary older adults can safely begin a program of moderate exercise and that the program helps to preserve mobility function.

The Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders (LIFE) pilot study involved 424 older adults and was conducted at four field centers, including Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. The other centers were the Cooper Institute in Dallas, Texas, Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and the University of Pittsburgh. Data collection and analysis were coordinated by the Wake Forest University School of Medicine. The research was supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

“North Carolina will add an additional 1 million older adults in the next 25 years,” says Wake Forest principal investigator Stephen B. Kritchevsky, Ph.D. “This study helps us understand the potential for exercise to maintain older adults’ independence and quality of life.”

Participants were invited to join the study if they exercised for fewer than 20 minutes a week, were between 70 and 89 years of age and had a low physical performance battery score, which is based on walking speed, balance, and the ability to rise from a chair. People with lower scores on this test are more likely than others to die earlier, to have health problems, and to be institutionalized or disabled.

“Our findings suggest that this program of aerobic, strength, balance and flexibility exercises can benefit older adults by improving performance on these basic physical tasks. These results are important because lower-extremity functioning is a very powerful predictor for future risk of disability among older adults,” said Michael E. Miller, Ph.D., Wake Forest principal investigator for coordination of data collection and analysis.

At the start of the study, participants also had to be able to walk about a quarter-mile within 15 minutes and without using an assistive device such as a cane. The participants were followed for up to 18 months.

Half of the study participants were randomly assigned to a year-long physical activity program that included individualized counseling and supervised center- and home-based exercises that included endurance, strengthening, flexibility and balance training. The other half took part in a “successful aging” health education program that discussed nutrition, medications, foot care, preventive services and other health topics, and included instructor-led arm and shoulder flexibility exercises.

At six and 12 months, scientists found that physical performance scores for the exercise group were significantly better than those in the “successful aging” group. They also found that by the end of the trial, people in the exercise group sustained their quarter-mile walking speed compared to the non-exercise group.

The researchers said that while the results are encouraging, the study was too small to reach a definitive conclusion regarding the role of exercise in preventing disability and that a larger-scale study is needed to examine this critical health end-point.

Other local researchers involved in the study included Jamehl Demons, M.D., Mark Espeland, Ph.D., Curt Furberg, M.D., Ph.D., Barbara Nicklas, Ph.D., and Jeff Williamson, M.D., all from Wake Forest University (WFU) School of Medicine, and Walter J. Rejeski, Ph.D., Anthony Marsh, Ph.D., and Peter Brubaker, Ph.D., all from the WFU Reynolda Campus.

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Media Contacts: Karen Richardson, krchrdsn@wfubmc.edu, or Shannon Koontz, shkoontz@wfubmc.edu, 336-716-4587.

Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center is an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital and Wake Forest University Health Sciences, which operates the university’s School of Medicine. The system comprises 1,187 acute care, psychiatric, rehabilitation and long-term care beds and is consistently ranked as one of “America’s Best Hospitals” by U.S. News & World Report.

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