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Physical activity in later years helps women preserve functional abilities

The JAMA Network Journals

CHICAGO - Women who are consistently physically active in their later years function better and have fewer problems with performing basic daily activities, according to an article in the November 24 issue of The Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

According to the article, in older adults the ability to function normally is related to physical activity; and people who are more active have fewer physical limitations than inactive individuals. However, the association between levels of physical activity and functional status over a long period of time has not been established.

Jennifer S. Brach, Ph.D., P.T., G.C.S., of the University of Pittsburgh, and colleagues examined the long-term association between physical activity and functional status in 229 postmenopausal, white women (average age, 74 years) over a 14-year period (1985-1999). Physical activity was assessed in 1985, 1995 and 1999 using a physical activity questionnaire and physical activity monitors (pedometer, or step counter, and an activity monitor worn on the hip). Functional status was assessed in 1999 using questionnaires about difficulties performing activities of daily living (eating, dressing, bathing, mobility, etc.).

The researchers found that physical activity in 1985 was predictive of walking speed in 1999. They also found that the consistency of physical activity from 1985 to 1995 was related to functional status in 1999. Women who were always active had the best functional status and women who were always inactive had the worst functional status. When the researchers assessed participants' difficulty with activities of daily living, they found:

  • 17 of 45 women (37.8 percent) who were always active had problems with daily activities
  • 24 of 60 women (40 percent) who were inconsistently active had problems with daily activities
  • 39 of 66 women (59.1 percent) who were always inactive had problems with daily activities

"We demonstrate the importance of an active lifestyle to functional status in older upper socioeconomic class white women. We have shown, in a relatively healthy sample, the importance of physical activity in maintaining physical function," the authors write.

"With people living longer, it is important to prevent the decline in functional status that occurs with age. Getting individuals to maintain adequate levels of physical activity across the lifespan could prevent declines in physical function, which could have major public health significance. Not only could sustained physical activity improve health-related quality of life for older adults, it may also decrease health care expenditures related to the care of individuals with deficits in functional status," the researchers conclude.


(Arch Intern Med. 2003;163:2565-2571. Available post-embargo at Editor's Note: This study was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Aging, Bethesda, Md.; a Public Health Service grant from the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md.; by the Foundation for Physical Therapy, Alexandria, Va., and by the Geriatric Section of the American Physical Therapy Association, Alexandria, Va.

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