What's the Best Exercise for Older People?

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A regular program of exercise for older adults is about more than just squeezing out a few extra years of life. It could decide the difference between being able to live on one's own versus needing to move into a costly assisted-living facility. For the older person, with physical strength comes independence. But what's the best regimen that will both build strength and still accommodate older and more brittle bones?

In the past, research tabbed swimming as a senior citizen's best exercise option. One study from Australia compiled data from the lives of about 1,700 men ages 70 and older, and compared the types of exercise the men did with their likelihood of experiencing a fall over a four-year period. There were just under 2,700 falls during the study. The takeaway was that men who swam were 33 percent less likely to fall compared with all men in the study, including those who golfed, did calisthenics or worked out on treadmills or stationary bikes.

A new study recommends a different approach, one that focuses upon exercises linked to daily living activities. Chiung-ju "CJ" Liu, an associate professor in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, created a 10-week "3-Step Workout for Life" exercise program that essentially turns the homes of older adults into age-appropriate gyms.

"Exercise, in general, is good for older people," Liu said. "It's good for their health and good for their independence. But when we were helping older people become more independent, just exercise didn't seem so efficient.”

According to her study, the results at the end of the 10-week three-step workout program were in line with that of a 10-week resistance-only exercise program. The big difference was that older adults retained the benefits of the 3-Step Workout for Life when they were tested six months later, while the benefits of the resistance exercise program had significantly decreased.

The “3-Step” program begins with resistance exercises such as bicep curls. The next step links those movements with daily living activities. The third and final step increases the challenge of performing those activities by having, for example, the participant walk farther or at different speeds.

Next Steps? Liu is now working with Crestwood Village, a senior-living community on the south side of Indianapolis, to determine if the program can be scaled to larger groups of older people than were involved in the study.