Walking 20 Minutes a Day Prevents Mobility Loss in Older Adults

Issue Date: 
June 16, 2014

A daily, 20-minute brisk walk around the neighborhood could significantly help older adults maintain their ability to walk, according to results from the longest-running randomized clinical trial evaluating physical activity in the elderly.

The University of Pittsburgh was one of eight field centers nationwide that recruited and monitored trial participants for the Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders, or LIFE, study, which followed 1,635 sedentary men and women—216 from Pittsburgh—aged 70 to 89.

The much-anticipated findings were presented May 27 at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in Orlando, Fla., and concurrently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

“Doctors have long suspected that maintaining or starting physical activity is important in promoting good health as we age,” said Anne Newman, the study’s principal investigator and professor and chair in the Pitt Graduate School of Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology. “But until this study, we didn’t have the proof necessary to say that daily exercise, sustained over several years, truly can prevent loss of mobility. Doctors can now feel confident that moderate physical activity improves the independence and mobility of older adults.”

Newman, a geriatrician, supervised the Pittsburgh arm of the LIFE study. The research, conducted at multiple sites, was coordinated by Marco Pahor, director of the University of Florida’s Institute on Aging. 

The results showed that prescribed daily physical activity prevents older adults’ loss of mobility. The study defined this loss as the inability to walk 400 meters or about one-quarter of a mile—typical of a leisurely neighborhood walk.

Moderate physical activity helped aging adults maintain their ability to walk at a rate 18 percent higher than older adults who did not exercise; it also resulted in a 28 percent reduction in permanently losing the ability to walk easily.

“This large impact on reducing persistent disability is important,” Newman said. “Beyond simply maintaining mobility, this shows that we can repair a deficit through physical activity.”

When recruited to the study, participants could walk a quarter mile within 15 minutes, but were at risk for losing that ability. Low physical performance can be a predictor of early death and higher hospitalization rates. Patients with low physical performance are not often recruited to large studies, making it difficult to give research-backed medical recommendations.

“These are people who are patients we see every day. This is why this study is so important: It includes a population that is typically understudied,” Pahor said.

At Pitt, nearly 24 researchers, students, technicians, nurses, and exercise physiologists ensured the trial and data collection ran smoothly. All eight field centers communicated with one another to share tips for encouraging participants to stay in the study.

The researchers noted that there is still a vast amount of study data that needs to be analyzed, including looking at the effects of physical activity on the participants’ cognitive function. 

In addition to her oversight role in Pittsburgh, Newman also chaired the ancillary studies review committee for the multicenter research and wrote the outcome procedures for cardiovascular events and the procedures for participant medical clearance.

Along with Pitt and the University of Florida, LIFE study field centers include Northwestern University, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Stanford University, Tufts University, Wake Forest University, and Yale University.