Vigorous Exercise Can Help Seniors Avoid Disability

Armen Hareyan's picture
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Healthy seniors who are physically active and exercise for more than 60 minutes each week can lessen their chances of disability as they age, finds a new long-term study.

"This study contributes to the large body of scientific evidence supporting the importance of continuing to be physical active over one's life," said lead author Bonnie Bruce, of the division of immunology and rheumatology at Stanford University Department of Medicine.

The study appears in the July issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

The researchers looked at 805 adults between the ages 50 and 72 at enrollment and followed them for 13 years, from 1989 to 2002. Each year, participants answered survey questions about their overall health and vitality and rated themselves on their ability (or inability) to do tasks such as dressing, eating and reaching. Responses fell on a scale from 0 (no difficulty) to 3 (unable to do).

Participants also reported their level of activity and were considered "active" if they exercised vigorously -- for example, by running, brisk walking, swimming, biking and hiking -- more than 60 minutes per week, or "inactive" if 60 minutes or less per week.

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The researchers then grouped them as normal-weight active, normal-weight inactive, overweight active or overweight inactive, with BMI determining their weight group.

The normal-weight physically active seniors reported an average of 303 minutes of exercise per week, compared with an average of 16 minutes for normal-weight inactive seniors. On the other hand, overweight seniors who were physically active reported an average of 251 minutes per week, compared with 12 minutes for the overweight inactive seniors.

After 13 years, the overweight active seniors (average disability score 0.14) had significantly less disability than the overweight inactive (average disability score 0.19) and normal-weight inactive seniors (average disability score 0.22) seniors.

The researchers concluded that being physically active, regardless of body weight, helped lessen disability. Bruce said that public health efforts that promote physically active lifestyles among seniors may be more feasible than those that emphasize body weight to remain healthy.

Brian Martinson, Ph.D., senior investigator at HealthPartners Research Foundation in Minneapolis, agreed that "it's better to be active than inactive," but said it's often difficult for physicians without specific training to motivate patients to think of the long-term health benefits of exercise and activity.

"Physicians should focus some discussions on the health benefits of physical activity because they have the most influence over their patients' behavior," he said. "However, I'm not sure how motivating the health benefits are to people. Most people, unfortunately, exercise because they want to look good in a dress or suit or want to look good for a high school reunion. The aim of decreasing disability long-term may not be enough of a motivator."

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