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One hour of brisk walking helps older adults keep their independence

Researchers at Northwestern University are reporting that just an hour of swift walking is enough to prevent disability in older adults with arthritis pain. The same preventive effect was also seen in patients with stiffness or aching in a knee, hip, ankle, or foot.

Study lead author Dorothy Dunlop is a professor of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

“This is less than 10 minutes a day for people to maintain their independence. It’s very doable,” said Professor Dunlop. “This minimum threshold may motivate inactive older adults to begin their path toward a physically active lifestyle with the wide range of health benefits promoted by physical activity.”

Symptomatic knee osteoarthritis is the most common type of osteoarthritis, and the condition affects about 14 million older adults in the United States alone. Overall, 40 percent of people with osteoarthritis develop some form of physical impairment that limits their activity.

The researchers found that one hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week helped older adults maintain their ability to perform daily tasks such as getting dressed. This level of exercise reduced the risk of daily living disability by 45 percent and mobility disability by 85 percent.

The investigation was focused on four years of data from more than 1,500 adults in the national Osteoarthritis Initiative. When the study began, the participants all had pain, aching, or stiffness in lower extremity joints, but were not experiencing disability. Accelerometers were used to measure physical activity among the adults during the study period.

“Our goal was to see what kind of activity would help people remain free of disability,” explained Professor Dunlop.

Federal guidelines recommend that older adults participate in at least 2.5 hours a week of moderate-intensity activity for a reduced risk of heart disease and many other chronic diseases. However, Professor Dunlop said this level of activity can be daunting for inactive older adults with lower extremity pain.

“We hope this new public health finding will motivate an intermediate physical activity goal,” said Professor Dunlop. “One hour a week is a stepping stone for people who are currently inactive. People can start to work toward that.”

The study is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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