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Exercise A New Prescription For Health

Armen Hareyan's picture

Prescribing exercise to the elderly could be more effective in getting older patients to get moving, according to a study by two Tufts nutrition researchers.

Increasingly, studies show that exercise plays an important role in reducing the health effects of aging. But many seniors have limited access to information about fitness options and their doctors often don't know how to advise them. To address this challenge, two Tufts researchers have developed a system to aid physicians in "prescribing" exercise recommendations as part of their conversations with patients.

"Starting an exercise program later in life can significantly modify risk factors, even if a person has been sedentary in prior years," said Ann Yelmokas McDermott, PhD, a researcher in the Lipid Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (USDA HNRCA) at Tufts. "Health care providers can play a major role in offering effective and inexpensive primary or adjunct therapies, encourage appropriate physical activity, and dispel myths that persist as barriers to exercise in the elderly."

McDermott, along with Heather Mernitz, PhD, of the Nutrition and Cancer Biology Laboratory at the USDA HNRCA, authored their article on this topic in a recent issue of the journal American Family Physician.

Exercise is important for older people because it can help them stay healthy or return to health, move around more easily and feel more confident.

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"Aerobic, resistance, balance and flexibility training all have been proven in past studies to help older adults build strength, maintain bone density and improve balance, coordination and mobility. Such training also reduces risk of falling and improves independence in performing everyday activities," according to an article by United Press International.

The researchers came up with a system called "FITT-PRO," which stands for frequency, intensity, type, time and progression, to help doctors formulate personalized fitness prescriptions for each patient. The goal is to provide physicians with references they can consult when recommending exercise to patients with specific concerns or health issues.

"There's tons of research that doctors don't know how to use," McDermott told United Press International. "It doesn't benefit the public."

Yet the potential benefit for seniors could be huge, even for those who have not been physically active.

"Only 30 percent of America's senior citizens engage in regular exercise, yet there is compelling evidence suggesting that people in all conditions of health and at all fitness levels benefit from regular physical activity," said McDermott. "In fact, the most de-conditioned individuals have the greatest and fastest response."

Getting doctors to promote exercise to seniors in this fashion is important, since they may not receive such information any other way.

"Seniors tend to have less access than other demographic groups to physical activity information and programming. In contrast, they have relatively more contact with their health care providers," said Mernitz.