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The question

Being physically active while young and middle-aged increases the likelihood of living longer and better into old age. Once you’ve reached old age, does exercise still matter?

This study

The researchers analyzed data on 1,635 people in their 70s and 80s who were generally sedentary and had been randomly assigned to a physical activity program or a health education program. In classes and on their own, the physical activity group walked regularly and did exercises to build strength, flexibility and balance. The other group attended workshops on such topics as negotiating the health-care system, travel safety and preventive services; during the workshops, they also did a few minutes of upper-extremity stretches.

All participants’ mobility was assessed every six months. The researchers defined lack of mobility, or disability, as not being able to walk 400 meters (about two-tenths of a mile) in less than 15 minutes without a walker or personal assistance.   During a span of 31/2 years, people who had exercised were less likely than the others to have lost mobility and become disabled, temporarily or longer. If they did become disabled, exercisers also were more likely to recover and less likely to become disabled again. Overall, people in the physical activity group spent 25 percent less time disabled than did the others.

Who may be affected

Older people. Being able to move around is a key component to older people’s ability to remain healthy and independent. Joint problems, weak muscles, neurological issues, pain and, most often, a fall can cause loss of mobility. This, in turn, can affect people’s quality of life, physical and emotional, and make them less able to live independently.

Caveats

The study did not indicate the nature or extent of participants’ disability.

Find this study

Online Sept. 27 in Annals of Internal Medicine (annals.org).

Learn more

Information on the benefits of exercise for older adults is available at nihseniorhealth.gov and nia.nih.gov/health.

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals.