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Published on December 16, 2014

To Keep Moving, Get with the Program

December 16, 2014

woman smiling doing yogaImagine having to depend on loved ones to do your grocery shopping or take your dog to the park because you've lost the ability to walk unassisted—and, little by little, your independence. Those aren’t hypothetical scenarios for mobility-disabled seniors. Recent research may point the way toward maintaining the ability to walk without a cane or walker.

A May 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that faithful, long-term adherence to a moderate, well-rounded exercise regimen helps prevent mobility disability—the first time researchers have identified a precise action seniors can take to stave off loss of the ability to walk entirely under one’s own power.

Step Up to Step Out

During the study, investigators at eight medical centers throughout the United States randomly placed 1,635 inactive, disability-vulnerable men and women ages 70 to 89 into two groups. One set of participants followed an organized exercise program of vigorous walking and resistance, balance and flexibility training twice per week in a medical setting and three to four times weekly at home; group members were eventually able to perform 150 minutes of physical activity per week. A second group attended elder health education classes that included a light upper body workout weekly for six months, and then monthly.

Participants adhered to their group’s program for an average of just more than two and a half years. After analyzing the data, researchers found that 35.5 percent of individuals in the education program no longer could walk 400 meters—about the length of four and a half football fields, excluding end zones—without assistance, but that only 30.1 percent of the exercisers had lost the ability to walk that distance independently. The physical activity adherents reduced their risk of significant mobility disability by 18 percent.

The lesson: A little exercise a day may help seniors go a long way—no help needed.

Ready, Steady, Exercise

Mobility loss isn’t the only threat to seniors’ quality of life that exercise can help prevent. Physical activity plays an important role in avoiding falls, which can have devastating physical and psychological consequences for older individuals.

One-third of Americans age 65 and older will fall this year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. If you’re part of that at-risk demographic, strengthen your defense against slips by fortifying your muscles and enhancing your flexibility. If you’re already active, keep up the good work—your morning laps in the community pool and evening sessions with resistance bands are great ways to keep your muscles and reaction time sharp. Try these activities from the National Institutes of Health if you’re just getting into exercise or want to supplement your existing regimen:

  • Grab the back of a sturdy chair, lift one foot slightly off the ground and balance on the other foot for several seconds while you watch TV. Perform three or four repetitions with each foot.
  • Holding the back of the same chair, extend a leg into the air behind you and bend it at the knee to bring your foot toward your back. Do this at least 10 times with each leg.
  • Now, fetch a stool, sit in the chair—ensure your back is well supported—and place your leg on the stool. Slowly stretch your hand as far as you can toward your foot, maintain the position for at least 10 seconds and release. Perform this exercise five times with each leg.


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