Exercise program for older adults turns fitness gains into functional gains

Exercise is good for older adults. But what kind is best?

The answer to that question is important. It may mean the difference between an older person living independently or having to move into a facility where someone helps them with daily living activities.

A decline in muscle strength due to age and a sedentary lifestyle is often what undermines older adults' ability to live independently. Having to depend on others to complete self-care tasks puts these individuals at risk for placement in a nursing home.

"Exercise, in general, is good for older people," said Chiung-ju "CJ" Liu, an associate professor in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. "It's good for their health and good for their independence."

"But when we were helping older people become more independent, just exercise didn't seem so efficient," Liu said.

Drawing on her background as an occupational therapist, Liu believed something more than resistance training was needed to help older adults manage daily living activities.

She created a 10-week "3-Step Workout for Life" exercise program that essentially turns the homes of older adults into age-appropriate gyms. In the program, the older adults perform exercises that are linked to daily living activities.

According to a recent study conducted by Liu, the results at the end of the 10-week three-step workout program were similar to that of a 10-week resistance-only exercise program. But older adults retained the benefits of the 3-Step Workout for Life when they were tested six months later, while the benefits of the resistance exercise program had significantly decreased.

The 3-Step Workout for Life program begins with resistance exercises like bicep curls. The second step links those movements with daily living activities. The third step increases the challenge of performing those activities by having, for example, the older person walk farther or at different speeds.

The program converts the benefits from resistance exercises and incorporates them into the things they do in their daily lives, Liu said.

With a study showing the results of the 3-Step Workout for Life program and support from the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute's Community Health Partnerships Trailblazer Award in hand, Liu now is working with Crestwood Village, a senior-living community on the south side of Indianapolis, to determine whether the program can be scaled to larger groups of older people than were involved in the study. Health fitness staff at the facility are learning the 3-Step Workout for Life program with the plan to incorporate it with other fitness programs the facility offers.