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Pumping Iron Improves Strength, Mobility of 80 and 90 Year Olds

Pumping iron at 90? Is there really any point? Absolutely, according to a new study reported in the June 23 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. In fact, frail long-term care facility residents in their 80s and 90s became stronger and more mobile with high intensity weight training in a clinical trial conducted by Maria Fiatarone, M.D., at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center for Aged in Boston.

Fiatarone and her colleagues found that a carefully designed program of strength training for the muscles of the hips and knees can counteract muscle weakness in very old people. Ultimately, this type of intervention could be a key to reducing disability and its costs as people age, and may help delay entry into a long-term care facility altogether.

The exercises “helped me tremendously,” said 88-year-old Sara Chiller, who limps from an accident she sustained years ago. She still goes to the training room every day and uses three machines—unassisted.

Fiatarone, of USDA’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston said that, “loss of muscle strength and mass is linked to physical frailty, functional disability and falls in the aged.” Falls are the most common accidental injury among the elderly, especially nursing home residents, she added.

Head of physiology studies at the USDA/Tufts center, an assistant professor in the Division on Aging, Harvard Medical School and director of the Fit For Your Life program at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center for Aged, Fiatarone conducted this research to find ways to abate muscle loss as part of the National Institute on Aging’s program to prevent frailty and injuries in the elderly.

She and colleagues conducted a 10-week trial with 100 residents of Hebrew Rehabilitation Center for Aged. They tested the effects of progressive resistance training on the volunteer’s thigh and hip muscles with and without an added 360-calorie multinutrient supplement.

“Although many factors contribute to the loss of muscle strength and mass,” said Fiatarone, “disuse and undernutrition have the potential to be prevented or reversed.”

Harry Lubar, age 93, said he volunteered for the study, “because I want to be as active as I possibly can.” He is still “doing four or five different exercises” once a week and plans to increase to twice a week.

Fiatarone said half of the 100 subjects worked hip and thigh muscle groups important to mobility during 45-minute sessions three days a week. Resistance was set at 80 percent of the maximum weight each participant could lift in a given session. The other 50 subjects participated in a recreational activity of their choice, including aerobic or flexibility exercises.

Half of the weight lifters and half of the control group were given a 360-calorie, high carbohydrate drink each day while the others got a 4-calorie placebo, she said. Neither staff nor subjects knew who got what. But the high-carbohydrate, low-fat supplement had no measurable effect on these functions, she said. “The exercise effect is so powerful that it dwarfs any effects of nutritional supplementation.”

The 50 subjects who lifted weights more than doubled their leg muscle strength on average, compared to a minimal gain among the non-exercise group. The exercise group also improved their walking speed by 12 percent and their ability to climb stairs by nearly 30 percent, compared to little or no improvements in the non-exercisers.

The findings are among the first to be reported from the FICSIT (Frailty and Injuries: Cooperative Studies of Intervention Techniques) clinical trials funded by the National Institute on Aging and launched in 1990 to reduce and prevent frailty. Funding for Fiatarone’s work was also provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.