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Study: Even modest exercise brings health benefits

Thomas Buford is an assistant professor at the University of Florida’s Department of Aging and Geriatric Research.
Thomas Buford is an assistant professor at the University of Florida’s Department of Aging and Geriatric Research.
Published Jul. 18, 2015

Wash those dishes. Dust that table. Make the bed. Get up and change the TV channel without using the remote.

Even the most modest exercise, the type we do around our household chores every day, can have a potential health benefit, according to a recent University of Florida study.

This is good news for many seniors whose lifestyle is more sedentary and for those older people who are facing mobility challenges. That's the conclusion of Thomas Buford, assistant professor at the Gainesville university's Department of Aging and Geriatric Research.

"We have this general idea that moderate exercise is necessary three times a week for health benefits," Buford said. The study suggests something much less strenuous also can have health benefits.

The study involved 1,170 people with an average age of 79 and a sedentary lifestyle.

Their daily activities were monitored with an accelerometer, which translated any kind of movement, no matter how slight or how strenuous, into "counts" per minute. The more active the exercise or movement, the higher the counts. The data was applied to a formula to determine the participant's long-term health risk for a cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack.

The study found that every 25 to 30 minutes a person spent in sedentary behavior — watching television, sitting to eat meals or lying down to read — increased their long-term health risk. By contrast, every 20 minutes spent doing even low-level activity decreased their long-term health risk.

"We know that physical activity is an important risk factor for cardiovascular health," Buford said. "But what we really don't know as much about is how low levels of activity might influence health.

"What we should be doing is encouraging people to integrate low-level activity into daily life," he said. "Walk more. Sit less. Park the car a little further away. Get up and walk while watching TV."

The traditional recommendations for exercise intensity and duration (at least 150 minutes a week) may not apply to seniors with mobility issues, he said.

"An older adult with functional limitations may not be able to perform moderate to vigorous exercise," said Tony Marsh, co-author of the study and a professor at Wake Forest University. "But you can go for a walk with your spouse or your kids or your dog. The critical element is to do something that gets you off the couch and moving."

Surprisingly, for those seniors who do exercise regularly, a sedentary day after a workout at a gym is still to be avoided if possible. "Exercise doesn't completely offset the sitting," Buford said.

Activity just slightly above sedentary, which could be light housework or slow walking, was associated with higher levels of the more beneficial kind of cholesterol, HDL, in some people.

"It's all about doing something," Buford said.

Contact Fred W. Wright Jr. at travelword@aol.com.