Can exercise keep a spring in our step longer?

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Released: Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Researchers try to prevent walking disabilities in the elderly

BATON ROUGE - Researchers at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center want to keep a spring in our step well into our senior years, and wonder if exercise can prevent disabilities that impair walking. The National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health, today announced the award of $29.5 million to several institutions during the next two years to determine whether a specific physical activity program can stave off disability in older people and the Center will receive about $6 million of that grant.

The funding will begin the Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders—LIFE— trial, the largest ever undertaken to prevent mobility disability among older people who are at risk of losing their ability to walk and to live independently in the community. The grant is being awarded to the University of Florida’s Institute on Aging in Gainesville, with whom the Center is a partner in this research.

“It is no longer about how long you live, but how long you will live well,” said Tim Church, M.D., Ph.D., the lead researcher at the Center, “This study will examine the role of exercise in preventing disability in older adults.”

At eight sites around the country, LIFE will involve 1,600 people aged 70 to 89, who at the start of the study meet its criteria for risk of walking disability, defined as the inability to walk a quarter of a mile or four blocks. About 200 participants will be enrolled at each of the study sites, which include the University of Florida; the University of Pittsburgh; Northwestern University School of Medicine in Chicago; Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.; Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La.; Yale University in New Haven, Conn.; Tufts University in Boston and Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. Wake Forest will also coordinate the data management and analysis.

Study participants will be randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group will follow a structured intervention consisting of walking at moderate intensity, stretching, balance and lower extremity strength training; the other will be a healthy aging education group. The participants will be followed for about three years. Researchers will evaluate whether, compared to health education, the physical activity intervention reduces the risk of major walking disability, serious fall injuries and disability in activities of daily living, and whether it improves cognitive function. They will also assess the cost-effectiveness of the intervention.

According to the investigators, the LIFE trial will be the largest randomized, controlled trial to prevent major mobility disability ever conducted in older persons who are at high risk of losing their physical independence.

“We know that many older people have health conditions that affect their ability to walk such arthritis, muscle weakness and balance problems,” Church said, “In the LIFE study we will examine the effectiveness and feasibility of an exercise program in this population.”


The Pennington Biomedical Research Center is at the forefront of medical discovery as it relates to understanding the triggers of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia. It is a campus of Louisiana State University and conducts basic, clinical and population research. The research enterprise at Pennington Biomedical includes approximately 80 faculty and more than 25 post-doctoral fellows who comprise a network of 44 laboratories supported by lab technicians, nurses, dietitians, and support personnel, and 13 highly specialized core service facilities. Pennington Biomedical's more than 500 employees perform research activities in state-of-the-art facilities on the 222-acre campus located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.