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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Northwestern Study: Physical Activity Helps Older Adults Maintain Mobility

Regular physical activity can help older adults maintain their independence by lowering the risk of a mobility-limiting disability, and help them recover more quickly after an episode, according to recent research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The paper was co-authored by Dr. Christine Pellegrini, research assistant professor of preventive medicine.

“Older adults are often inactive and end up moving in and out of states of disability,” Dr. Pellegrini said. “The results of this study show that continuing to promote engagement in physical activity could help to preserve their mobility.”

The randomized trial included more than 1,600 sedentary adults, aged 70 to 89 years. Half of the study participants were assigned to a structured physical activity program, aiming to walk 150 minutes per week, with some strength training and stretching. The other group was enrolled in a health education program.

Trial participants were assessed every six months for 2.7 years to evaluate the amount of time spent in major mobility disability (MMD), defined as the inability to walk 400 meters without assistance. That distance is considered a good benchmark for independence and quality of life in older adults, as it is required for carrying out many everyday tasks.

Previously, research from the Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders (LIFE) study, co-authored by Dr. Mary McDermott, Jeremiah Stamler Professor of General Internal Medicine and Geriatrics, had shown that such a physical activity program reduced the initial incidence of MMD.

In the new study, investigators built upon those findings to show that physical activity reduced the overall MMD burden, or the total time older adults spent with a mobility disability, by 25 percent compared to the health education group. The physical activity program not only helped to reduce the risk of initial incidence of MMD, but also contributed to shortened recovery times following an MMD, and helped to lower the risk of future episodes.

According to the authors of the paper, the results highlight the public health importance of physical activity, illustrate that maintaining mobility is a dynamic process and show that appropriate interventions — even after an initial disability — can help older adults retain full independence within their communities.

The LIFE Study was supported by grant U01AG022376 from the National Institute on Aging and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the Intramural Research Program, all of the National Institutes of Health.