Pioneering exercise program improves physical, mental health of elderly people living in care homes

If the number of people over 65 currently accounts for 22% of the total population in the Basque Autonomous Community (region), predictions indicate that this percentage will rise to 30% by 2030. That is why it is important to promote healthy aging, one of the main backbones of which is health and physical exercise. In fact, during aging, doing regular exercise may reverse age-related physical deterioration and, at the same time, frailty, a very common syndrome among the elderly and which entails a higher risk of falls, hospital admissions, dependence and even death. This syndrome is more widespread among people living in residential care homes.

In order to improve the life quality of this group, the UPV/EHU's Ageing-On research group led by Jon Irazusta, in collaboration with the Matia Institute, has designed a program of physical exercise adapted to the capabilities of each individual. Strength, balance and stamina are worked on. The program is run progressively and the intensities are increased as the capabilities of the people, for whom the adaptations of the body are greater, increase. This makes it pioneering because firstly there are few studies exploring the effects of physical exercise on frailty in this population, and secondly, the programmes do not tend to be adapted to the capabilities of the each individual.

The effectiveness of the program was analyzed in a sample of 112 participants from 10 centers for the elderly. They were randomly divided into two groups: the "control" group that continued with its usual activities and care, and the "experimental" group that did two 45-minute sessions of physical exercise per week designed to improve strength and balance. The time they spent walking was gradually increased until they reached at least 20 minutes a day.

Physical and cognitive improvement

By the first assessments, a link was found between greater limb strength, an improved cognitive state and enhanced life quality. In other words, the work designed to build strength, which is often overlooked in elderly people, can be of great help in improving their physical and mental state, in particular among those who use walking sticks, crutches, Zimmer frames or other aids.

After three months, the study showed a significant improvement in most of the physical variables, such as strength, walking speed and balance in the people who were doing physical exercise. By contrast, the people in the "control" group saw a reduction in their physical capabilities.

The results obtained in the SPPB (Short Physical Performance Battery) were particularly significant. These tests are used to measure the degree of frailty and may predict the risk of falls, hospital admittances, dependence or death. Doing physical exercise generated a two-point increase in the SPPB while the result for the "control" group fell by one point. "A difference of a single point on this scale is already regarded as significant; 3 points are a clinically highly significant difference, which points to the effectiveness of the program. In addition, it is remarkable that those individuals with a worse functional status benefitted from the program even more. So we can say that the program is appropriate for anyone as long as they enjoy a degree of cognitive capacity and autonomy allowing them to participate in it", explained Prof Jon Irazusta.

The positive results obtained have been published in the journals BMC Geriatrics, Maturitas and Experimental Gerontology. The Ageing-On research group has also designed a methodology whereby any center for the elderly can set up an exercise program developed with the guidelines set out in its research. The group is hoping that the program will be extended to improve the life quality of elderly people who are in residential care. At the same time they believe that their methodology could also be of use in improving the status of other people, such as those who have recently spent time in hospital, who suffer dementia or other neurological problems and the main carers of dependent people.

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