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Clinical Review ABC of sports and exercise medicine

Activity in later life

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 20 January 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:189
  1. Archie Young,
  2. Susie Dinan


    Regular physical activity brings important health benefits at any age. Its importance for health in old age is highlighted repeatedly in the English national service framework for older people. Any potential hazards can be reduced by education and guidance of participants.

    Prevention of disease

    Regular physical activity helps prevent conditions important in “old age,” notably osteoporosis, non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus, hypertension, ischaemic heart disease, stroke, and perhaps some cancers, specifically colon cancer.

    Prevention of disability and immobility

    Not only does regular physical activity play an important part in preventing disease, its function preserving effects are also important. Frail elderly patients with multiple disabilities mayalso derive functional benefits from graded physical training.

    Embedded Image

    Elderly people taking part in a water exercise class

    Even healthy elderly people lose strength at a rate of some 1-2% a year and power at a rate ofsome 3-4% a year. In addition, many elderly people have further problems because of the presence of chronic disease. The resulting weakness has important functional consequences for the performance of everyday activities. In the English National Fitness Survey, nearly half of women and 15% of men aged 70-74 years had a power to weight ratio (for extension of the lower limb) too low to be confident of being able to mount a 30 cm step without a hand rail.

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    Physical activity helps prevent:

    A similar argument applies for endurance capacity: 80% of women and 35% of men aged 70-74 years had an aerobic power to weight ratio so low that they would be unable to sustain comfortably a walk at 5 km/h (3 mph). Similarly, at least a third of women and nearly a quarter of men aged 70-74 years had shoulder abduction so restricted that they would be unable to wash their hair without difficulty.

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    Physical training

    Regular exercise increases strength, endurance, and flexibility. In percentage terms, the …

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