A multi-institution study led by researchers at the University of Florida's Institute on Aging has quantified the benefits of medically supervised physical activity for older sedentary adults.

The study, published in JAMA, shows that a structured, moderate-intensity physical activity program compared with a health education program reduced major mobility disability among older adults at risk for disability, and was also cost-effective.

Researchers recruited 1,635 sedentary men and women ages 70 to 89 for the Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders study. The participants were randomly separated into two groups and followed for an average of 2.6 years. The first group of 818 walked 150 minutes per week and did strength, flexibility and balance training. They were monitored by two visits to field centers per week. The second group of 817 attended health education classes and performed stretching exercises.

Staff members assessed study participants every six months, checking their ability to walk, their body weight, blood pressure and pulse rate, among other measurements. The staff was not told which participants were assigned to physical activity or to the education classes.

Study results showed moderate physical activity helped aging adults maintain their ability to walk at a rate 18 percent higher than older adults who did not exercise. Moderate physical activity not only helped older adults maintain mobility but also helped prevent the occurrence of long-term mobility loss. There was a 28 percent reduction in people permanently losing the ability to walk easily.

However, the study did turn up one unanticipated result: The number of people reporting hospitalizations in the physical activity group was slightly higher than in the education group, though the number was not statistically significant. Researchers think this is in part because the physical activity group had more frequent contact with research staff, possibly resulting in a higher reporting of hospitalizations.

The physical activity could also have triggered underlying heart trouble and other health problems. Researchers plan to study this occurrence more closely.

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