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  • Researchers have found that guided, group exercise can significantly improve strength and mobility for seniors 65 years and older.
  • Retaining mobility is key to being able to live independently.
  • If people lose mobility they may be more likely to end up in nursing homes or other assisted care facilities.

As people age, staying mobile can be key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Specifically, the ability to move or walk freely and easily is critical to living independently, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

Older people who lose their mobility are more likely to go into assisted living facilities and nursing homes and are at risk of experiencing more illness, disability, hospitalization, and death.

Now new research finds that just one tailored, group exercise session per week helps prevent declining mobility and associated medical issues for those ages 65 and older.

“The findings from this study are encouraging because they were able to demonstrate a positive effect from a relatively low level (low engagement) intervention and importantly found the intervention was cost-effective in delaying disability,” Kathleen C Insel, PhD, professor and chair of the Biobehavioral Health Science Division, University of Arizona College of Nursing, told Healthline.

Researchers looked at participants in the REtirement in ACTion program (REACT). REACT is “group-based physical activity and behavioral maintenance” for older adults beginning to experience mobility issues, like increasing difficulty climbing upstairs, walking significant distances, or standing up from a chair.

“In later life, reduction in mobility leads to loss of independence and compromised quality of life,” said Professor Afroditi Stathi, PhD, REACT chief investigator from the University of Birmingham, U.K.

The program’s goal is to prevent further mobility declines with exercises focused on lower body strength, balance, and stamina.

Participants were taught to establish an exercise habit that helps maintain physical function, provides health benefits, and reduces medical costs.

REACT was run in three U.K. locations, Bath/Bristol, Birmingham, and Devon, for over four and a half years and included 777 participants aged 65 to 98 years old, who were divided between an intervention and a control group.

Stathi explained that the initial hypothesis was that people in the REACT program would end the study with better physical function compared to the control group, and that is what they confirmed.

“However, we were surprised at how many REACT participants didn’t just reduce the rate of mobility decline usually associated with aging but actually reversed it,” she said.

She added that they found significantly reduced health and social care costs halfway through the study period.

In a follow-up study looking at the economic impact of REACT, researchers found that the program helped save costs related to aging.

The study found REACT was cost-effective in comparison to usual care and generated net cost savings along with improved health-related quality of life.

“The REACT program has been shown to be effective and cost-effective for maintaining mobility in retirement-age adults at risk of major mobility-related disability,” lead author Tristan M Snowsill PhD and their team wrote.

Rebecca Stallwood, an occupational therapist at Hunterdon Medical Center in Flemington, New Jersey, said maintaining strength and mobility is “everything” to our aging population.

“Maintaining strength and mobility allows seniors to walk around with ease, travel and attend events such as concerts without significant physical obstacles,” said Stallwood. “It is also extremely important in preventing falls.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 36 million elderly Americans fall each year, resulting in 32,000 deaths.

Exercising with other people can be very motivating and is recommended, along with a qualified instructor,” said Stallwood. “People that engage in group exercise typically stick with programs longer and make greater overall progress.”

She emphasized that the less we move, the weaker we get, leading to even more immobility.

“It’s kind of a domino effect, which can ultimately lead to a greater risk for developing obesity, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and even increased pain,” Stallwood said.

Stallwood noted that regaining lost mobility depends significantly on underlying health conditions, but nearly anyone can improve with expert guidance.

“Lost mobility can typically be restored or partially restored by starting with small exercises, gradually increasing the time and intensity of these exercises, under the direction of a qualified medical professional or instructor,” she said.

She added that strengthening one area of your body could also help compensate for weakness in another body part, which can improve overall mobility.

“Seniors should consult their physician before starting an exercise program,” Stallwood advised. “Once your doctor clears you to exercise, you can gradually increase the amount of time and intensity of the exercises, which will reduce the risk for injury.”

“We would like older adults to know that increasing and maintaining mobility in later life is possible,” said Stathi. “Achieving it is doable.”

“So, focus on strength and balance, increase your activity gradually, and enjoy yourself,” she recommended.

According to Stathi, age is no limit to reaping the benefits of exercise.

“The REACT study has really shown that as far as activity is concerned, some is good, more is better and it’s never too late to start!” she said.

Stathi pointed out that, based on these findings “we really hope we can start to roll REACT out across the U.K., and in time in other places, including the U.S., too.”

If you’re interested in learning more about REACT, and potentially setting up sessions in your area, you can learn more here.

Researchers in the U.K. have found that even one guided, group exercise session per week can significantly improve strength and mobility for seniors 65 years and older.

Experts say that some people didn’t just improve but reversed their declining mobility.

They also recommend checking with your doctor before beginning a new exercise program.