Physically Active Seniors May Live Longer, Study Suggests

Higher Activity Level in Daily Living Linked to Longer Life for Seniors (image source: iStock)A new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association, provides more evidence that physically active seniors have a lower risk of dying than those who are least active. This is one of the first studies, however, to base its findings on an objective measure of physical activity in daily living, including not just exercise, but also non-exercise daily activities.

The study, by Dr. Aron Buchman, a professor at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, and colleagues, included 893 seniors, average age 82 years. The seniors wore a device on their wrists measuring their daily physical activity level (from all sources, including both exercise and non-exercise daily activity) for 10 days.

The study found that those with the highest level of physical activity (from all sources, not just exercise) had a 25% lower chance of dying within the four-year follow-up period of the study than those with the lowest level of daily activity.

This was one of the first studies to measure objectively the actual activity level of seniors from all sources, rather then relying upon self-reported recall of exercise. “Most studies of physical activity in old age have focused on self-reported physical activity measures, which are affected by recall bias,” the authors wrote. “Moreover, few studies have examined the contribution of nonexercise physical activity to survival in old age. We tested the hypothesis that an objective measure of total daily activity, including both exercise and non-exercise physical activity, is associated with longevity in community-dwelling older persons.”

The study, entitled “Total Daily Physical Activity and Longevity in Old Age,” was published in the March 12, 2012 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association.

The Study

To measure whether activity levels (from both exercise and non-exercise daily activities) affect longevity for seniors, the researchers measured the daily activity level of 893 community-dwelling seniors in the Chicago area. The participants were an average age of 82 years old, had an average education level of 14.8 years, and included 76.3% women, and 11.8% with dementia.

The participants wore a small device called an “actigraph” on their wrists, which recorded their level of movement and physical activity throughout the day (from all sources, both exercise and non-exercise daily activities), for an average period of 9.3 days. According to the researchers, “Total daily physical activity ranged from 0.06 x 105 counts/d to 13.56 x 105 counts/d (mean [SD]: 2.88 x 105 [1.57 x 105] counts/d),” among the participants.

The researchers followed the participants for an average of four years. During this period, all participants underwent structured annual clinical examinations to determine their health conditions.

During the four-year follow-up period, 212 of the seniors (23.7% of the participants) died.

The researchers conducted statistical analysis to measure the relationship, if any, between the participants’ total daily physical activity level for the 10 days at the beginning of the study and their risk of dying during the four-year follow up period.


After adjusting for age, sex, and education, the analysis found that a higher level of total daily physical activity was associated with a decreased risk of death (hazard ratio [HR], 0.71; 95% CI, 0.63-0.79), according to the authors.

“Thus, an individual with high total daily physical activity (90th percentile) had approximately one-fourth the risk of death compared with an individual with low total daily physical activity (10th percentile),” the authors wrote.

In further analyses, “the association of total daily activity and death remained significant even after excluding (1) individuals with clinical dementia (HR, 0.77; 95% CI, 0.68-0.88); (2) cases with a history of stroke or Parkinson disease (HR, 0.73; 95% CI, 0.64-0.83); or (3) cases dying during the first 3 years of follow-up, leaving 79 incident cases of death (HR, 0.81; 95% CI, 0.68-0.97),” the study found.

Further, “Total daily physical activity was associated with death even after adjusting for several possible confounders including traditional self-reported physical activity and the frequency of other late-life social and cognitive activities, level of motor and cognitive function, chronic health conditions, and depressive symptoms alone.”

“The association between total daily activity and risk of death did not vary by age, sex, or education,” the researchers reported. “Although total daily activity was lower in persons with clinical dementia, the association of total daily activity and death did not vary by dementia status,” they found.

Conclusions; Implications

“These data support the link between total daily physical activity and risk of death in very old persons and suggest that an active lifestyle including not only physical exercise but also nonexercise physical activities may augment health and longevity in old age,” the authors wrote.

Emphasizing that, unlike previous studies, this research included an objective measure of activity from non-exercise daily activities as well as from exercise, the researchers stated, “Findings from the present study underscore the potential benefits of higher levels of nonexercise physical activity as well as exercise and leisure activity.”

“Furthermore, energy expenditure from nonexercise physical activities may have a substantial role when considering the benefits that accrue from physical activity,” they said. “Because older persons who have underlying health problems may not be able to engage in formal exercise, the option of increasing nonexercise physical activities may have important translational consequences for the design of physical activity intervention studies and public policy goals.”

“Finally,” the authors concluded, “these results lend support for efforts to encourage a more active lifestyle for all older adults even those with chronic health conditions and functional impairments.”

The authors, however, noted possible limitations of their study, including “the selected nature of the cohort, the self-reporting of chronic diseases, and the fact that certain types of activities may not have been measured owing to placement of the actigraphs on the wrist.” “Furthermore,” they said, “the device used in the present study does not differentiate the types of activities that were performed. Additional studies are needed to determine the relative contributions of exercise and nonexercise physical activity in older individuals and the degree to which they can be independently modified to augment survival.”

Overall, however, “This [study] suggests if you’re increasing your activity — even in your home — it has some advantages,” said Professor Buchman, the study’s lead author.

“It’s another strong piece of evidence that all seniors should be participating in physical activities,” Dr. Catherine Sarkisian, director of the Los Angeles Community Academic Partnership for Research in Aging, who was not involved in the study, told Reuters.

“Physical activity is one of the most important things that seniors can do to improve their health for the rest of their lives,” she added.

Dr. Sarkisian, however, pointed out that this research does not prove that exercise necessarily makes people live longer. It could be that people who were healthy enough to exercise lived longer for other health reasons.

However, like the study authors, she said that this research corroborates other evidence that exercise is beneficial to seniors’ health.

“Older adults can check their local senior centers for exercise programs or talk to their doctors or a physical therapist for ideas,” Dr. Sarkisian told Reuters. “There are also programs tailored for people with physical limitations, such as those who are wheelchair bound or at an increased risk for falling.”

Dr. Buchman, the study’s principal author, suggested that increasing activity can be as simple as an older person increasing their activities around the house. “If you can do light activity, do light activities,” she said.

More Information

The full report of the new study, entitled “Total Daily Physical Activity and Longevity in Old Age,” can be found in the March 12, 2012 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association.

See related HelpingYouCare™ reports on:

Fitness Lowers Odds of Death from Dementia, Study Finds

Fitness More Important Than Body Weight in Reducing Death Risk

Exercise Changes DNA for the Better, New Study Finds

Exercise Increasingly Important for Those Over Age 65

Benefits of Weight Training for People Over 50 (Video)

Losing Weight Through Modest Changes in Lifestyle Habits (Video)

See also the HelpingYouCare™ resource pages on Wellness/ Healthy Living for Seniors & Caregivers, including:


Copyright © 2012 Care-Help LLC, publisher of HelpingYouCare™.


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