Short daily walks ward off disability in older adults

Just one hour of brisk walking a week staves off disability in older adults with arthritis pain, or aching or stiffness in a knee, hip, ankle, or foot, research finds.

“This is less than 10 minutes a day for people to maintain their independence. It’s very doable,” says lead author Dorothy Dunlop, professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “This minimum threshold may motivate inactive older adults to begin their path toward a physically active lifestyle with the wide range of health benefits promoted by physical activity.”

An estimated 14 million older adults in the United States have symptomatic knee osteoarthritis, the most common form of osteoarthritis. Approximately two in five people with osteoarthritis—most of whom have it in their lower joints—develop disability limitations.

As reported in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the weekly hour of exercise reduces risk of mobility disability (walking too slowly to safely cross a street or less than one meter per second, for example) by 85 percent. Further, risk of activities of daily living disability (difficulty performing morning routine tasks such as walking across a room, bathing, and dressing) showed an almost 45 percent decline.

“One hour a week is a stepping stone for people who are currently inactive. People can start to work toward that.”

Researchers analyzed four years of data from more than 1,500 adults in the national Osteoarthritis Initiative from Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The adults all had pain, aching, or stiffness in lower extremity joints from osteoarthritis but had no disability when the study began. Researchers monitored their physical activity using accelerometers.

“Our goal was to see what kind of activity would help people remain free of disability,” Dunlop says.

Four years after the start of the study, 24 percent of adults who did not do a weekly hour of brisk physical activity walked too slowly to safely cross the street, and 23 percent reported problems performing their morning routine.

Federal guidelines recommend that older adults with arthritis participate in low-impact activity. For substantial health benefits including reducing the risk for heart disease and many other chronic diseases, the guidelines recommend older adults participate in at least 2.5 hours a week of moderate-intensity activity.

But that level of activity can be daunting for inactive older adults with lower extremity pain, Dunlop says.

“We hope this new public health finding will motivate an intermediate physical activity goal. One hour a week is a stepping stone for people who are currently inactive. People can start to work toward that.”

Additional researchers from Northwestern contributed to the study. The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases of the National Institutes of Health and the Falk Medical Trust funded the work.

Source: Northwestern University