Simple PUSH spells improved senior health

Exercise program can reduce fractures

One out of three seniors who breaks a hip this year will die as a result of complications from the fracture, but simple fitness measures can greatly reduce a senior’s risk of falling, say University of Arkansas at Fayetteville (UA) researchers. A pilot outreach project, sponsored by the UA Office for Studies on Aging, has proved that seniors can achieve significant gains in strength and balance in a matter of weeks by following a simple exercise program that places minimal strain on the body or the budget.

UA researchers developed the PUSH (Project Urging Senior Health) program to demonstrate the ease of establishing and maintaining senior exercise programs in the community. As a trial run, the researchers initiated simple fitness regimens at two senior centers in Arkansas. But the results they observed among seniors who participated were so significant, they now suggest that similar programs across the nation could significantly reduce the number of senior citizens who suffer from falls and fractures each year.

"Our scheme was to go into senior centers and teach the staff that exercise programs could be easily integrated into their services — that fitness could be inexpensive, easily administered, and fun," says Ro DiBrezzo, PhD, UA professor of exercise science. "We didn’t expect to see any statistically measurable changes in senior health in only ten weeks, but when we looked at the data, our participants had made surprising gains."

Data collected

Though the researchers regarded PUSH primarily as an outreach program, they collected data anyway, hoping the results would bolster the case for providing exercise services to the elderly. They tracked 19 participants from the two Arkansas senior centers, conducting physical and mental assessments at the beginning of the program and again at the end of ten weeks. The participants ranged in age from 60 to 90, with a significant representation in the age range of 80 and above.

The physical assessment led seniors through eight tests of strength, balance, flexibility, and dynamic balance (ability to balance while in motion). According to the researchers, initial results showed Arkansas seniors to be significantly below national fitness norms for the elderly.

For 40 minutes a day, three times a week, the seniors in the program performed stretching and strengthening exercises, using Therabands and exercise balls and learning proper exercise techniques. At the end of ten weeks, the physical assessment tests showed statistically significant improvement in measures of balance, strength, and dynamic balance. In addition, the participants improved their levels of HDL, the "good" form of cholesterol.

"According to fitness norms for the elderly, the participants in this program ranked in the tenth percentile in strength and dynamic balance when we started. But just performing simple exercises over a couple of months, they moved from the tenth percentile to the sixty-fifth," DiBrezzo says. "We had people on oxygen doing these exercises, people using walkers. That’s a huge leap for people who are so frail."

And the benefits were not exclusively physical. The researchers also conducted a mental assessment that tested more than cognitive functioning. It included a questionnaire that asked how active the participants were on a daily basis and recorded their general states of mind — whether they usually felt anxious or calm, energetic or worn out.

"We found connections between mental state and both initial and final physical performance scores," says Barbara Shadden, PhD, a professor of communication disorders at UA. "Mind and body interact more than you’d think, and both are important to our quality of life as we age."

If senior centers across the nation were to offer simple exercises programs such as the one used in PUSH, elderly Americans could improve their overall health, reduce their risk of falling, and reap mental health benefits that could keep them active and involved in the community, the PUSH researchers say. They intend to expand the reach of PUSH this spring by conducting a training seminar for individuals involved in senior services. The workshop will teach people how to properly implement senior exercise programs in a manner that is both safe and cost-effective.

"Pretty much anyone who works with older adults is in a position to implement this program," notes Shadden. "Starting an exercise program in a couple of senior centers isn’t going to fully serve the elderly population. The point is to train as many people as possible how to do it."

Need More Information?

  • Ro DiBrezzo, PhD, Professor of Exercise Sciences, Human Performance Laboratory, University of Arkansas, HPER 321, Fayetteville, AR 72701. Telephone: (479) 575-6762. Fax: (479) 575-2853. E-mail: rdibrezz@uark.edu. Web site: www.uark.edu/admin/hplweb.
  • Barbara Shadden, PhD, Professor of Communication Disorders, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Telephone: (479) 575-4917. E-mail: bshadde@uark.edu.