Regular Exercise Gives Frail Elderly More Independence

The importance of regular exercise to reduce losses in fitness for older adults is well established, and seniors are encouraged to do weight training and aerobic exercise at least twice a week.

Now it seems supervised moderate-intensity exercise provides real health benefits for frailer elderly people, even those with early-stage dementia. It helps with bone and muscle strength and better balance, preventing falls and injuries, and allowing these much older individuals to retain some independence while they live in supported accommodation.

Australian exercise physiology researcher, Dr Tim Henwood, Research Fellow at Blue Care Research and Practice Development Centre at the University of Queensland School of Nursing and Midwifery has continued his studies into exercise and its benefits to the aging body, looking at how a weekly exercise class can help frail elderly and semi-dependent people living in aged care accommodation.

Age-related Muscle Loss and Reduced Strength is Preventable

Dr Henwood said that sarcopenia (muscle loss and reduced strength) which develops with normal aging often leads to falls in the very elderly, and then their inability to live independently, resulting in hospitalisation and rehoming in aged care accommodation.

Yet, “the loss in muscle mass that precedes functional disability is the most predictable and most preventable feature of normal ageing”, he wrote in a paper about be published. He designed a weight-bearing exercise routine, based on the routine activities of daily living, and was able to show that such exercise could have “significant functional benefits for the very old, even when undertaken once per week. This has important implication for prolonged independence among this age group,” he said.

Improved Strength, Balance and Quality of Life for Elderly Exercisers

Dr Henwood trialled his exercise routine with a group of semi-dependant elderly people in a day care respite centre in South Brisbane. Some participants had mild, early stage dementia and other cognitive diseases, but all were capable of following instructions and undertaking the exercise program.

Another group of similarly-aged people who lived in the independent living unit units attached to the day care centre were also enrolled in the trial. The average age of all participants was 78.5 years. All were obese and had a slow walking speed associated with the risk of falls.

Initially the people living in the independent units had better balance, agility and lower body strength than those in residential aged care, despite being similar ages, with similar levels of obesity and illness.

Both groups took part in the same exercise program over a 20 week period at the day care centre. While nobody’s BMI or weight changed after the exercise study, significant improvement was seen in all participants’ walking speed, ability to walk a distance of six metres, strength of handgrip, lower body strength and balance.

Moderate-intensity Exercise Benefits Very Old Adults

“This study supports the use of moderate-intensity exercise among very old semi-dependant adults. In addition to gains in strength and functional ability, the present research was able to demonstrate that group training can be safely delivered to an at risk population,“ Dr Henwood reported.

“The present research also identified lower-body strength, balance and agility differences in similar aged adults, which could be a defining precursor to level of independence in the very old. Moderate intensity weight bearing exercise has important implications for low functioning adults, with programs such as employed here offering prolonged independence to a vulnerable portion of the population, which may translate to a reduced falls and all cause mortality risk.”

The trial exercise program was so successful, Dr Henwood said, that it is being rolled all out to all Blue Care aged care facilities in Queensland.

The Exercises

After a warm up session of stretches, shoulder rolling and foot stamping, participants were taken through three sets of 10 – 15 repetitions of each of the new exercises, and then warmed down with more upper- and lower-body stretching. Exercise sessions lasted an hour and were supervised by an exercise physiologist as well as the day care centre staff.

The exercises were:

  • Chair Rise to Standing
  • Chair Dips
  • Calf Raises and Hip Flexor/Abdominal Lifts
  • Trunk Twists
  • Shoulder Press with Bicep Curl

You might also be interested to read: Exercise Best Falls Prevention Measure, Benefits of Resistance Training and Getting Older People Walking.


  • Henwood, Tim R and Taaffe, Dennis R. (2010). Muscle strength and functional ability in older adults: Impact of sarcopenia and resistance training. In Marvin S. Donato and Jahiem E. Marini (Ed.), Muscle strength: Types, efficiency and drug effects (pp. 57-105) New York, U.S.A.: Nova Science Publishers.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be used for diagnosis or to guide treatment without the opinion of a health professional. Any reader who is concerned about his or her health should contact a doctor for advice.

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