Keeping active pays off even in your 70s and 80s

Issue date: 17 June 2014

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Older people who undertake at least 25 minutes of moderate or vigorous exercise everyday need fewer prescriptions and are less likely to be admitted to hospital in an emergency, new research has revealed.

The findings, published in the journal PLoS ONE, reinforce the need for exercise programmes to help older people stay active. It could also reduce reliance on NHS services and potentially lead to cost savings.

In the first study of its kind looking at this age group, researchers from UWE Bristol, the University of Bristol and the University of Bath looked at data from 213 people whose average age was 78.

Those who carried out less than 25 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day – such as walking quickly, cycling or swimming -received 50 per cent more prescriptions over the following four to five years than those who were more active.

Such physical activity leads to a higher metabolism and better circulation, reducing the risk of conditions and diseases common in older age such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and strokes.

The study also found that very little exercise carried a higher risk of unplanned hospital admissions. Those who carried out an average of three minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity were twice as likely to be vulnerable than those in the most active third of the sample, who averaged 39 minutes.

These results remained significant even when other factors affecting health were taken into account, such as socio-economic status, education, weight, existing disease and level of physical function.

Researchers measured physical activity using accelerometers - small gadgets that monitor all movement throughout the day - alongside elements of physical function including balance, leg strength and walking gait.

Medical records were then examined to investigate health service usage over the next four years. This captured visits to primary care, referral for secondary services, unplanned admissions to hospital and the number of prescriptions needed.

Being active was not associated with the frequency of visits to the doctor, or referral for other hospital services.

One of the report's authors was Professor Selena Gray from UWE Bristol's Department of Health and Applied Social Sciences. She said, “This study helps us to recognise the significant health benefits that accrue to individuals and society from being active in older life. There are lots of reasons for older people to keep active and get out and about, and we need to look carefully how we can support older people to continue to be physically active and maintain their independence for as long as possible.”

The results support the recent recommendations from NICE that all GPs should encourage physical activity in their older patients.

Exercise should be targeted and tailored to those in their 70s and 80s, aiming to increase muscle strength, balance, coordination and aerobic fitness to prevent falls.

The study was part of the OPAL-PLUS project, funded by The Dunhill Medical Trustwith additional support from the Avon Primary Care Research Collaborative and the South West General Practitioners Trust. Researchers at the University of Bristol worked with colleagues at the University of Bath and UWE Bristol.

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