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NIH Research Matters

June 2, 2014

Physical Activity Program Helps Maintain Mobility

A carefully structured, moderate physical activity program helped vulnerable older people maintain their mobility. The study shows that exercise can benefit even many frail older people.

Senior couple walking along the street together.

People who lose mobility as they age have higher rates of disease, disability, and death. Studies have shown the benefits of regular physical activity for a variety of populations and health conditions. But none has identified a specific intervention to prevent mobility disability.

Researchers for the Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders (LIFE) trial recruited diverse participants from urban, suburban, and rural communities. The study was led by Dr. Marco Pahor at the University of Florida and conducted at 8 centers across the country. More than 1,600 sedentary men and women at risk of disability, ages 70 to 89, participated. They were randomly assigned either to a program of structured, moderate-intensity physical activity or to a health education program focused on topics related to successful aging.

The physical activity group gradually worked up to a goal of 150 minutes of weekly activity. Activities included 30 minutes of brisk walking, 10 minutes of lower extremity strength training, 10 minutes of balance training, and large muscle flexibility exercises. The programs took place at a clinic twice a week and at home 3 or 4 times a week. The comparison group had weekly health education workshops for 26 weeks, followed by monthly sessions. They performed 5 to 10 minutes of upper body stretching and flexibility exercises in each session as well.

The participants were assessed every 6 months at clinic visits. Researchers tracked attendance at sessions and issued questionnaires. Activity was also recorded for one week each year with an accelerometer, a small belt device that measures physical activity. The work was supported in part by NIH’s National Institute on Aging (NIA) and National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Results appeared online on May 27, 2014, in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Over the course of the study—an average of 2.6 years—the physical activity program significantly reduced the risk of major mobility disability by 18%. Participants receiving the intervention were better able to maintain their ability to walk without assistance for 400 meters, or about a quarter of a mile.

“We are gratified by these findings,” says NIA Director Dr. Richard J. Hodes. “They show that participating in a specific, balanced program of aerobic, resistance, and flexibility training activities can have substantial positive benefits for reducing risk of mobility disability. These are actionable results that can be applied today to make a difference for many frail older people and their families.”

Based on previous findings, in 2011 NIA launched Go4Life, a national exercise and physical activity campaign for healthy older adults. The LIFE study shows that older people vulnerable to disability can also reap rewards from regular physical activity.

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Reference: Effect of Structured Physical Activity on Prevention of Major Mobility Disability in Older Adults: The LIFE Study Randomized Clinical Trial. Pahor M, Guralnik JM, Ambrosius WT, Blair S, Bonds DE, Church TS, Espeland MA, Fielding RA, Gill TM, Groessl EJ, King AC, Kritchevsky SB, Manini TM, McDermott MM, Miller ME, Newman AB, Rejeski WJ, Sink KM, Williamson JD; for the LIFE study investigators. JAMA. 2014 May 27. doi: 10.1001/jama.2014.5616. [Epub ahead of print]. PMID: 24866862.

Funding: NIH’s National Institute on Aging (NIA), National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), and Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD); U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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Editor: Harrison Wein, Ph.D.
Assistant Editors: Vicki Contie, Carol Torgan, Ph.D.

NIH Research Matters is a weekly update of NIH research highlights from the Office of Communications and Public Liaison, Office of the Director, National Institutes of Health.

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This page last reviewed on June 2, 2014

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