Researchers took more than 1,600 sedentary people between 70 and 89 years old who had some functional limitations, but who could walk about a quarter of a mile in 15 minutes or less, unassisted by another person or a walker. (Canes were OK.)
Half of the participants got a health education program involving regular in-person sessions and some stretching exercises, while the other group was told to aim for 150 minutes of aerobic activity as well as strength, flexibility and balance training both at the study’s facilities and at home. “Walking was the cornerstone of the program,” says Thomas Gill, a professor of geriatrics at the Yale School of Medicine and an author of the study, which appears in Annals of Internal Medicine.
The study followed participants for about 2.7 years, and found that the physical activity program cut the amount of time that people spent with a “major mobility disability” — defined as being unable to walk a quarter mile — by 25 percent compared to the education program. Previous findings from the same study showed that the exercise program lowered the risk of becoming disabled in the first place; this one showed that it sped recovery from an episode of disability and lowered the risk of subsequent episodes.
“They’ve done a really nice job of showing the incredible power of physical activity,” says Bradley Cardinal, a professor of kinesiology at Oregon State University who wasn’t involved with the study. “It’s the secret ingredient to successful aging in terms of quality of life.” An editorial accompanying the study, by the University of California, San Francisco’s Patricia Katz and the University of South Carolina’s Russell Pate, also noted that people who engage in physical activity have a lower risk for heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, depression, cognitive impairment …