Yanna Lee

New Yale research suggests that an exercise regimen can improve older people’s ability to both avoid and overcome physical disabilities.

A Lifestyle Intervention and Independence for Elders, also known as LIFE, study, originally published in June 2014, followed 1,635 initially sedentary older individuals for two to three years as they were placed either in a walking program or a health class. Thomas Gill, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine, along with his research team, discovered through reanalysis of the LIFE study data that older persons in the walking program were less likely to develop a disability. They also discovered that if the participants had a disability at the beginning of the study, they were more likely to recover and in the event of recovery, they were less likely to develop another disability when compared to those put in the health class.

“We demonstrated that the benefit of such a program will persist for [a long] period of time,” Gill said. “It’s something that’s feasible and that offers sustained long-term benefits.”

The researchers collected the data by watching the research subjects walk 400 meters, according to Marco Pahor, the director of the University of Florida Institute of Aging and a coordinator of the LIFE study. Their capacity to walk this distance, the difficulty they felt and the length of time each person took to walk the distance were the factors used to determine the level of disability for each of the subjects.

In the end, the analysis found that there was a 25 percent reduction in disability over three-and-a-half years among those in the exercise regimen group in comparison to those in the health class.

“The message here is that even if you’re an older person, you can start exercising later in your life and there will still be benefits,” said Patti Katz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco who was not involved in this study. “It gives you a resilience to recover even if you do get sick or you do have a problem. You’ve got more reserves to bounce back with.”

The study compared many different subgroups, including persons who were 70–79 years of age versus those 80–89 years of age, people with a greater initial handicap versus those that were initially healthier and groups of different genders and races.

According to Pahor, those who were older or had a greater initial physical impairment made the largest improvements during this study. However, there was no difference across subgroups of race and gender.

A key part of this study was the emphasis on creating an exercise regimen that was easy to implement in the real world, according to Gill. While there was some focus on muscular strength, the primary exercise in the regimen was walking, he added.

“Being able to walk is an important function when you get older because once you are not able to walk a certain distance there are many things in your life that you can no longer do,” said Katz. “You are no longer independent.”

The effects of the study are even more pronounced considering that every participant in the study was initially sedentary, Gill said. He added that their ability to stick to the regimen and display real benefits shows the study’s applicability and success.

Gill said that the participants were able to maintain this routine mainly because they did not have to change their daily schedule in order to stay active. Instead, they just had to walk around their towns, which caused little inconvenience, Gill added.

Katz noted that this was a study that should be used to convey the importance of exercise to the general public, and that it is never too later to start exercising.

“I think this is important for people in general life to remember and important for physicians to convey to their patients,” Katz said.

The World Health Organization recommends that each week, older adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic physical activity.