SAN DIEGO — For America’s seniors, getting a daily dose of exercise can be a challenge, particularly as one’s mobility worsens with age. A new study finds, however, that older women who stick to that pesky to-do list and log just 30 minutes of housework a day may be adding years to their lives.
Researchers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) and University at Buffalo monitored the physical activity levels of 6,000 women, aged 65 to 99, via an accelerometer over the course of four-and-a-half years. The motion-sensing devices stored data tracking the participants’ movements on a given day.
The massive amount of data showed that older women who completed 30 minutes of light exercise a day had a 12 percent lower risk of death. For participants who added an additional half hour, their overall risk of dying decreased by 39 percent.
“This is remarkable because current public health guidelines require that physical activity be of at least moderate or higher intensity to confer health benefits,” says the study’s lead author, Michael LaMonte, a research associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health at Buffalo, in a news release. “Our study shows, for the first time in older women, that health is benefitted even at physical activity levels below the guideline recommendations.”
The researchers emphasize that many daily tasks, including doing the laundry, sweeping the floor, washing the windows, talking a neighborhood walk, or even going outside to get the mail could count as light exercise. These types of daily tasks account for 55 percent of how seniors get daily activity.
Walking around the neighborhood at a brisk pace or a casual bike ride would qualify as moderate to vigorous exercise for seniors.
“Improving levels of physical activity both light and moderate could be almost as effective as rigorous regular exercise at preventing a major chronic disease,” says Dr. Andrea LaCroix, the study’s senior author, in a UCSD release. “We don’t have to be running marathons to stay healthy. The paradigm needs to shift when we think about being active.”
LaCroix and her team discovered that these findings applied to every population within the study’s dataset, including older women of different ages, races, body weights, and general abilities.
“Older people expend more energy doing the same kinds of activities they did when younger, so their daily movement has to accommodate for this,” LaCroix explains. “Think of it as taking a pill (activity level) at different doses (amounts of time) depending on the age of the patient. It’s not one size fits all.”
While elderly Americans are no exception to guidelines recommending that adults get 150 minutes of physical activity a week, this research shows that perhaps there’s an easier way.
“Doing something is better than nothing, even when at lower-than-guideline recommended levels of physical activity,” says LaMonte.
Younger adults should take note too, the authors add. That’s because by 2050, the number of seniors in the U.S. is expected to be twice what it was in 2000, with women outnumbering men 2-to-1 at the current pace.
“With the increasing baby boomer population in the United States, it is imperative that future health guidelines recommend light physical activity in addition to more strenuous activity,” LaCroix concludes. “When we get up from the couch and chair and move around, we are making good choices and contributing to our health.”
Perhaps the biggest takeaway LaCroix hopes seniors remember: “Every movement counts.”
The researchers published their findings last week in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.