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Gardening and walking help prevent mobility disability

Light activity such as gardening or walking can protect mobility among aging adults without the need for intense exercise, according to a new study from UC San Diego.

One out of every four women over the age of 65 will develop what is known as mobility disability. This condition is characterized by the inability to walk two blocks or climb a flight of stairs. 

Mobility disability is the leading type of physical impairment in the United States and a key contributor to a person’s loss of independence. 

In the current study, the experts found evidence that light-intensity physical activity, including shopping or a leisurely stroll, may protect mobility in older women. 

The researchers determined that women who did not have a mobility disability at the start of the research, and who spent the most amount of time doing light-intensity activities, were 40 percent less likely to lose their mobility over the next six years.

“Older adults who want to maintain their mobility should know that all movement, not just moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, counts,” said study senior author Dr. Andrea LaCroix. “We found that, among older women, light-intensity physical activity preserves mobility later in life.”

The analysis was focused on 5,735 women over the age of 63 who participated in the Objectively Measured Physical Activity and Cardiovascular Health study. 

The women had worn a research-grade activity tracker for seven days, which revealed that the average time spent in light physical activity was 4.8 hours per day.

The experts determined that women who spent the most time performing light-intensity physical activity had a 46 percent lower risk of mobility disability compared to women who participated in lower levels of physical activity. The effects were found regardless of whether the individuals were obese, but the benefit was strongest among women with a body mass index (BMI) of less than 30.

“Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity is increasingly more difficult to perform as people age,” said study co-author Dr. John Bellettiere. “Considering the aging population in the United States, these findings could have major impacts on public health recommendations, putting more focus on the importance of light physical activity to improve the health and well-being of older women. Doing so may help women maintain mobility and independence as they age.”

According to the study authors, the data suggests that light activity is likely important for maintaining mobility, which is essential for healthy aging. Older adults with mobility disability experience more hospitalizations and spend more on health care, and women are disproportionately affected. 

“The highest levels of light-intensity physical activity are unnecessary. After five hours of activity, we observed no further increase in benefit,” said study first author Nicole Glass.

“In addition, our results showed that light-intensity physical activity was associated with preserved mobility regardless of the amount of higher-intensity physical activities, such as brisk walking, jogging or running, the women engaged in. So whether you exercise or not, higher light-intensity physical activity is healthy.”

The study is published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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