Monday, February 05, 2007

Staying active keeps seniors steady on their feet

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Older people who have long been physically active, and remain so, have better balance than less vigorous seniors, while those who pick up the exercise after retirement fare almost as well, French researchers report.

However, individuals who exercised in the past, but stopped after retirement, had balance control nearly as bad as those who had never been active, Dr. Philippe Perrin of the Universite Henri Poincare-Nancy, Villers-les-Nancy, and colleagues report.

Many older people experience a decline in their balance control, reducing their independence and putting them at increased risk of falling, Perrin and his team note in the January issue of the International Journal of Sports Medicine.

Exercise interventions, such as tai chi programs, improve balance and reduce fall risk, they add. There is also evidence that people who have been active for a long time can control their balance more effectively due to stronger muscles and a better ability to gauge their position in space using sensory receptors and the inner ear's balance system.

To investigate how physical activity affects balance, Perrin and his team assigned 130 men and women, who were an average of 70 years old, into four groups based on past and current activity level. The groups included people who were physically active before and after retirement, averaging 45 years of activity; those who started to exercise after retirement, and averaged 11 years of physical activity; those who were active before they retired, for an average of 15 years, but were no longer active; and people who had never been active.

All underwent the Sensory Organization Test, in which they tried to maintain their balance under challenging conditions.

Seniors who were active and continued to be so in retirement scored highest on the test, while the totally inactive group scored the lowest. Men and women who first started to exercise in retirement had balance abilities similar to those who were always active, while those who had stopped being active had scores close to the men and women who were never active.

Active individuals had balance test scores similar to those of inactive people 10 to 15 years younger, the researchers found.

"Our data encourage people who have never practiced physical activity in their life, without cardiovascular (limitations), to take up physical activity...both to counteract the effects of aging on balance function and to reduce the risk of falls," they conclude.

SOURCE: International Journal of Sports Medicine, January 2007.



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