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Even Light Physical Activity Helps Older Women Maintain Their Mobility

Older women who logged more time with light physical activity were more likely to be able to keep walking and climbing stairs years later.

Staying physically active has rewards for older women. They don’t have to pump iron or run marathons, though. Even moderate or light physical activity can help them maintain their mobility as they grow older. That, in turn, is an important step in maintaining independence.

Assessing Light Physical Activity in Older Women:

In a study of nearly 6,000 women over 63 years old, researchers used accelerometers to measure movement accurately over the course of a week (JAMA Network Open, Feb. 23, 2021). This technology provides more objective data than asking volunteers to estimate how much they move. These participants were part of a much larger study called the Women’s Health Initiative. They wore the accelerometer (ActiGraph GT3X+) on their right hip 24 hours a day for a full week, except when they were bathing or swimming.

On average, the women had nearly 5 hours a day of light physical activity such as housework, shopping or walking. The researchers followed up with the women for six years. All of the women were able to walk a city block and up a flight of stairs without difficulty at the beginning of the study. By the end of the time, the women who had spent the most time doing light physical activity were in better shape. They were 46 percent less likely to have lost mobility. The scientists defined mobility loss when a woman said she could not walk a block or climb a flight of stairs.

What About Exercise?

The accelerometers also measured moderate to vigorous physical activity, such as jogging, walking fast or dancing. Not surprisingly, women who performed the most light physical activity were also the ones who exercised most, termed high-intensity activity. However, the benefits of just moving around did not depend upon actual exercise. 

The scientists found that this pattern held for Latina and Black women as well as white women.

One investigator explained:

“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.”

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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