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Benefits of exercise in older adults: part 3

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Muscle strength is a recommended component of healthy living in old age. But it wasn't generally promoted before 1990.

“Up until that point, a lot of geriatricians and doctors had thought: Don't give older adults strength training, they're going to blow a gasket. It's going to be a huge problem for blood pressure,” said Sandra Hunter during a Marquette Presents panel discussion in January.

Hunter is a professor of Exercise Science at Marquette University.

Research has since shown that “active individuals in their 80s have a lower risk of death than an inactive individual in their 60s,” said Hunter. Falls and accidents are among the leading causes of death in the elderly, and exercises that promote strength, balance and mobility can minimize those deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends for adults age 65 and older 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise per week coupled with two or more days of strength exercises for major muscle groups.

A shift in geriatric medicine occurred when a 1990 study reported increases in muscle strength, muscle mass and mobility in assisted-living participants averaging 90 years old who had undergone an eight-week regimen of resistance training. Previous research had studied effects of active lifestyles in older adulthood, but none used participants at such advanced ages and infirmities.

The research inspired new areas of study and thought, including Hunter's own PhD work and areas of her current research. Miriam Nelson, who helped conduct the 1994 follow-up study went on to write the book Strong Women Stay Young and founded the StrongWomen organization.

Even though the field is relatively young, many of its findings have rapidly disseminated into popular knowledge. Kathy Molling, a Milwaukee-area physical therapist who works extensively with older adults, said patients and family members who think she's pushing too hard are “few and far between. Between the clients we work with and the families and friends that are there to support them, I think they support the notion that we're there to help the patient get better and that they do see the benefits.”

But the academic research alone didn't win the popular support.

Molling said of her patients, “When we first approach them, when we're doing the evaluation, we try to win their confidence. And when we're working with a patient, we try to establish a relationship that is based on trust so that they have confidence in what we're telling them and that we have confidence in their abilities.”

The next Marquette Presents panel discussion is scheduled for April 29 on the subject of spinal chord injuries. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

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