Exercise in the Elderly: Research and
Jason E. Frankel, MD
, Jonathan F. Bean, MD
Walter R. Frontera, MD, PhD
New England Sinai Hospital and Rehabilitation Center, Department of Physical Medicine and
Rehabilitation, 150 York Street, Stoughton, MA 02072, USA
Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Tufts New England Medical Center,
750 Washington Street, Box 400, Boston, MA 02111, USA
Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation,
Harvard Medical School/Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, 125 Nashua Street,
Boston, MA 02114, USA
Spaulding Cambridge Outpatient Center, Box 9, 1575 Cambridge Street,
Cambridge, MA 02138, USA
A surge of recent inquiries into the preventive health benefits of exercise in
elderly patients has been generated by the growing percentage of seniors in the
population. Some data are preliminary, but many important conclusions can
be drawn that may positively affect the care and functional capacity of el-
Exercise programs generally consist of four major components: strength,
endurance, balance, and flexibility. This article outlines the normal physiology of
each component, the natural effects of aging and the effects of medical comor-
bidities on each, research into the primary effects of exercise in elderly patients,
and specific prescription recommendations.
Except where otherwise indicated, the research cited in this article pertains
specifically to older adults. Although many studies are prospective in design and
allow the reader to draw at least some generalizable conclusions, much of this
work is still preliminary in nature. Further studies with larger patient cohorts are
needed, and the recommendations contained herein reflect this need. A summary
of the recommendations to follow is found in Table 1.
0749-0690/06/$ – see front matter D2006 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
TCorresponding author. 125 Nashua Street, Boston, MA 02114.
E-mail address: email@example.com (W.R. Frontera).
Clin Geriatr Med 22 (2006) 239 – 256
Summary of exercise recommendations for older adult patients
Mode Benefits Prescription Precautions
Strength Improve daily function
Reduce blood pressure
Reduce arthritis pain
Increase aerobic capacity
in congestive heart
May start with
low-intensity PRT in
deconditioned or poorly
May add task-specific
exercise to improve
Monitor vital signs in
patients with known
coronary artery disease,
Monitor patients with
neurologic insults for
Begin with reduced
weight bearing in
patients with unstable
Endurance Reduce blood pressure
Improve lipid profiles
Lower cardiac mortality
Improve insulin sensitivity
Improve symptoms of
pulmonary disease and
weakness and improve
Reduce pain and
improve function in OA
and rheumatoid arthritis
5–6 METs or more for
30 min 5/wk
Heart rate 60%–70% of
projected max or Borg
Scale of Perceived
Exertion level 11–13
with pulmonary disease
and use supplemental
oxygen where needed.
Monitor vital signs in
patients with cardiac and
Patients with vascular
claudication exercise to
just below the point
Monitor patients with
neurologic deficits for
fatigue and schedule
exercise and rest
Balance Fall risk reduction
Tai Chi, or weighted
vest exercises, or high-
velocity ankle exercises
3–4/wk in combination
with other modes
Control pain where needed.
Consider DEXA scan
supplement Vitamin D
Flexibility Not well studied 4–5 repetitions, held for
30 s apiece, incorporat-
ing both static and
Combine routinely with
Begin with gentle,
where healing orthopedic
injuries are present.
Abbreviations: CVA, cerebrovascular accident; DEXA, dual emission x-ray absorptiometry; METS,
metabolic equivalents; OA, osteoarthritis; PRT, progressive resistance training; SpO
by pulse oximetry.
frankel et al240
Because of a number of societal and medical factors, securing seniors’ long-
term compliance with exercise regimens can be most challenging. Transporta-
tion difficulties, financial constraints, and insurance payer limitations may all
contribute . A study by King and colleagues  in 2002 best illustrates this
phenomenon. Eighty subjects were enrolled in an intense, supervised, multi-
disciplinary exercise program at a therapy center. They exercised in this setting
thrice weekly for 6 months, weekly for the next 6 months, and then with a home
exercise program twice weekly for another 6 months. Various functional tasks
were monitored, such as chair rise, 6-minute walk, signing one’s name, tandem
stance, and others. Progress was compared with a control group of 75 patients
who received only home exercise instructions. For the first 12 months, the center-
based exercise program showed clear advantages over the home-based program
in improving function. However, the transition to home-based exercise for
months 13 to 18 saw a quick reversal of these functional advantages. Based on
this finding, the authors conclude that some long-term center-based supervision
may be necessary to secure compliance with an exercise regimen in older persons.
These data support the notion that supervised or group settings may be pref-
erable for elders, with regard to both safety and compliance. Finding a ‘‘workout
buddy’’ for regular exercise sessions may be helpful. Inexpensive community
options, such as Tai Chi or more traditional aerobics, may exist for elders who do
not have friends nearby with whom to exercise. Researchers have also noted
strength gains with the use of Tai Chi group exercise programs, which have the
added benefit of providing social activity .
Strength is defined as the instantaneous maximal force generated by a muscle
or group of synergistic muscles at a given velocity of movement. Power describes
the product of the force generated and the velocity of movement. Both of these
aspects are physiologically dependent on both the number and diameter of myo-
fibrils within muscle cells, on the fiber type, and on the coordination of the
neurologic elements that control the contraction of skeletal muscle.
Physiology and the effects of aging on strength
Advanced age is associated with decreasing strength, and declines in the
physiologic properties of muscle mentioned earlier are contributing factors [4–7].
Declining muscle mass and poor overall function in seniors relate significantly
to inactivity. Mobility and the ability to perform activities of daily living and
instrumental activities of daily living decline accordingly. More specific health
problems have also been noted in the presence of poor strength. Quadriceps
exercise in the elderly 241
muscle weakness predisposes to osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee . Decreased
body and muscle mass is a risk factor for osteoporotic fractures after falls [9–12].
Benefits of strength training
The process by which muscle tissue is strengthened and trained has been
studied for many years. The first systematic clinical research was undertaken by
T.L. Delorme in the 1940s .DeLorme’s Axiom states that training using high
repetitions of low-weight tasks will produce improvements in endurance, whereas
fewer repetitions of high-weight exercise will lead to increases in strength. The
axiom further states that these effects are mutually exclusive, so that exercise
geared toward one sort of training will not bring about improvements in the other.
More recent research confirms the first two ideas but finds the third assertion
incorrect, indicating that strength training is best understood as a continuum
between pure endurance training and pure strength training [14,15].
Many patients and physicians believe strength training occurs in a health club
or gymnasium-based program, but in fact this need not be the case. Progressive
resistance training (PRT) consists of moving the major joints repeatedly through
the full range of motion several times weekly, with or without some form of
resistance. For patients who are severely deconditioned from extended bed rest or
other relative immobilization, PRT can be initiated using only gravity as resis-
tance. However, even frail elders have tolerated high-intensity PRT in studies .
An advantage of PRT is that exercise can easily be completed at home, in bed or
in a seated position. Conventional weights are often added to the routine to reach
a moderate- or high-intensity goal. Weighted vests worn during gait-focused
exercise have also been shown to improve strength, power, and physical perfor-
mance in a pilot study .
PRT has been extensively studied, especially in patients at risk for adverse
cardiac events such as myocardial infarction (MI) and congestive heart failure
(CHF). Research suggests that it is a safe yet efficient training stimulus for these
patients [5,17–22]. Moreover, benefits are seen in patients who already have
symptomatic cardiovascular disease. Women who have disabilities secondary to
known coronary artery disease (CAD) may experience improvements in various
aspects of daily physical function , and older patients who have CHF can
increase strength, endurance, and submaximal aerobic capacity using PRT .
Finally, for older patients with borderline high blood pressures, strength training
may normalize blood pressure .
In addition to its cardiovascular benefits, strength training can decrease
disability and is associated with a lower risk for falls in patients with hip fractures
[26–29]. Studies using home-based programs demonstrated such benefits. PRT,
especially in combination with balance and walking exercises, leads to increased
body mass and bone density and appears otherwise to modify the risk for falls
[5,30–32]. Patients who have knee OA report reduced pain and increased
independence in functional tasks after specific quadriceps-strengthening exer-
frankel et al242
Some data also exist regarding the role of strength training in patients with
disability secondary to a stroke. In a study by Rimmer and colleagues ,
12 weeks of exercise, including strength training, were undertaken by African
American stroke survivors. At the end of the study, improvements in oxygen
) and strength were noted. Whether such gains could amount
to a reduction in stroke-related disability was not specified. Another study by
Oullette and colleagues  randomly assigned stroke patients to either high-
intensity PRT or stretching routines and noted gains in both unaffected and
hemiparetic leg strength. Improvements were seen in self-reported function.
In younger patients, abruptly starting vigorous exercise carries a slight risk
of malignant cardiac arrhythmia or MI with sudden death. The American College
of Sports Medicine recommends exercise stress testing for all men over 40 and
women over 50 years of age before beginning any strenuous exercise program
[5,23,36,37]. Whether this is advisable for older adults is not clear. Some data
indicate that only approximately 26% of patients older than 75 years were able to
reach projected maximum heart rate during treadmill testing, and the relevance
and financial feasibility of pharmacologic stress testing have not been clearly
established . Although there is most likely an initial increase in cardiac
mortality for older adults following the start of vigorous cardiac exercise, its
effects are quite possibly offset by the resulting improvements in cardiovascu-
Although specific, scientifically based algorithms for pre-exercise screening
have not been delineated, Box 1 itemizes conditions that warrant further diag-
nosis and treatment before beginning exercise. They include but are not limited to
undiagnosed murmurs, bruits, resting tachycardia or bradycardia, enlarged aorta,
undiagnosed hernia, and delirium. These all warrant further evaluation, and blood
pressure above 200/110 should be treated before initiating exercise. Despite these
necessary precautions, the prescribing physician must not lose sight of the
benefits of strength training for elderly patients described earlier. When the initial
prescription is low intensity, increases are introduced slowly and progress moni-
For severely deconditioned elders and those who have established cardiac
risks, PRT or another low-intensity program may be prescribed as little as twice
weekly, with the use of only body weight as resistance. Patients should perform
10 to 15 repetitions per set in each of the major upper and lower extremity muscle
groups and three sets per session for each muscle group. Frequency should then
be increased to three to four times weekly, and then light resistance such as soup
cans or wrist weights may be added. Once this goal has been achieved, transi-
tion to a supervised, center-based, moderate-to-high-intensity physical therapy
program two to three times per week is desirable. Alternatively, a less frequent
but higher-intensity PRT program performed at a therapy gym can lead to sub-
stantial improvements in strength and neuromuscular performance. This finding
exercise in the elderly 243
appears to be true for even a once-weekly program. Where compliance or trans-
portation to the therapy setting is at issue, this may be the most effective starting
point . Ultimately, the patient should be able to perform all exercise with-
Although PRT is known to improve strength, the major controversy regarding
it is whether it is the most effective means of improving muscle power and
mobility skills. Declining muscle power is well documented in older adults and
has also been more strongly associated with declines in functional performance
than declines in strength. High-velocity training has been shown to improve
power , and comparison between this and PRT alone is in the earliest stages.
Another option to improve function may be to add task-specific exercises to
PRT. These exercises simulate daily functional tasks to the greatest extent pos-
sible and are associated with functional gains .
Some further precautions are advised. In patients who have known severe
cardiovascular or pulmonary disease, initial supervision by a physical therapist or
nurse may be warranted, using blood pressure, pulse, and saturation by pulse
) monitoring. Patients who have knee pain from severe OA may
benefit from strength training, but weight-bearing exercises may worsen symp-
toms where knee malalignment and ligamentous laxity are evident . Non–
weight-bearing exercises or water-based programs may be a better initial pre-
scription for these patients . Patients with impairments such as cerebrovas-
cular accident or multiple sclerosis, which affect muscles and motor neurons,
may experience easier fatigue in these distributions. Strengthening is still bene-
ficial to these patients but may need to be introduced and advanced more slowly.
Box 1. Contraindications to participation in an exercise program
Unstable angina or severe left main coronary disease
End-stage congestive heart failure
Severe valvular heart disease
Malignant or unstable arrythmias
Elevated resting blood pressure (ie, systolic N200 mm Hg,
diastolic N110 mm Hg)
Large or expanding aortic aneurysm
Known cerebral aneurysm or recent intracranial bleed
Uncontrolled or end-stage systemic disease
Acute retinal hemorrhage or recent ophthalmologic surgery
Acute or unstable musculoskeletal injury
Severe dementia or behavioral disturbance
From Bean JF, Vora A, Frontera WR. Benefits of exercise for
community-dwelling older adults. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 2004;
85(Suppl 3):S33; with permission.
frankel et al244
The ultimate goal of any exercise program is transition to ensure compli-
ance and adherence. One means of accomplishing this goal is to offer varied,
low-cost programs in environments that are close to individuals’ homes. Many
physical therapy centers offer membership at a low rate for use at their gyms;
senior centers have exercise classes, and community gym memberships may
offer discounts to elders. Researchers have also noted strength gains using Tai
Chi group exercise programs, which have the added benefit of providing social
Endurance is the ability to maintain a given level of exercise over time or
to perform a given task repeatedly without fatigue that prevents further such
activity. This factor is rooted in numerous physiologic parameters: air exchange
in the lungs, heart function, blood circulation and patency of blood vessels, and
the biochemical characteristics of individual muscle cells. Diseases or conditions
such as coronary or peripheral vascular disease, restrictive or obstructive pulmo-
nary disease, general deconditioning, and malnutrition may therefore adversely
Several terms are used to monitor endurance. VO
peak represents the peak
amount of oxygen that may be transported to the active muscles during exercise
and is used extensively to chart progress in cardiac and pulmonary rehabili-
tation. Exercise intensity and caloric expenditure in general may be defined in
terms of metabolic equivalents, or METs, where one MET is equivalent to the
oxygen uptake of a person at rest or approximately 3.5 mL per minute. Sub-
sequent METs represent multiples of this basal rate. Housework, such as vacu-
uming or mopping, uses approximately two to four METs; moderate exercise
such as jogging uses five to six METs. Exercise over six METs is considered
Elderly patients develop poor endurance as a result of many factors. Aging
itself is associated with declining skeletal muscle mass and capillary blood flow,
poor nutritional intake, and impaired oxygen uptake . In addition to these
factors, several common disease processes in elderly patients are shown to affect
endurance. Approximately 11% of patients older than 70 have chronic obstructive
pulmonary disease, which further decreases oxygen exchange in the lungs .
In addition to being a common cause of poor endurance, cardiovascular disease
(including CHF and CAD) is the second most common ailment and the lead-
ing cause of death in older people . General deconditioning from inactivity is
common in older adults and contributes to poor endurance ; it may pre-
dispose to diabetes mellitus. With its associated neuropathies, pain syndromes,
and attendant risk for cardiac disease, diabetes is both a risk factor for further
inactivity and poor endurance and the sixth leading cause of death in adults
65 and older .
exercise in the elderly 245
Benefits of endurance training
The benefits of endurance exercise in elderly patients have been studied, al-
though some data are generalized from non–age-group specific studies. (In this
article, the terms endurance and aerobic exercise are used interchangeably.) For
patients at risk for cardiovascular disease, such as those who have hypertension
and elevated lipid profiles, aerobic exercise has been associated with aver-
age decreases of 11 mm Hg in systolic blood pressure and 8 mm Hg in diastolic
blood pressure [5,48,49]; in one study it was associated with both lowered total
cholesterol and lowered low density lipoprotein levels. Cardiac mortality has
been shown to be lowered by 31% . In a study by Kavanagh and colleagues
, patients with a recent history of cardiac illness who were enrolled in
an aerobic exercise program increased their average VO
peak and improved
For patients who have diabetes, endurance exercise can have beneficial ef-
fects. Studies have shown improvements in insulin sensitivity as measured by
glucose uptake after aerobic exercise training, both in experimental animals 
and in humans . Diabetic patients also show improved lipid profiles, blood
pressure, and energy expenditure with endurance exercise programs [54–56].
Pulmonary disease is common in elderly patients, but data focusing on the
effects of exercise in elders with respiratory problems are lacking. A great deal of
data exists for the younger population of patients who have lung disease and
shows that endurance exercise can improve both objective measures of lung
function and perceived symptoms [5,57–59]. Endurance exercise may also reduce
disability in patients who have lung disease. One randomized, controlled study
showed that 18 months of aerobic exercise in patients aged 65 to 69 resulted in
progressive improvements in functional tasks, including a 6% improvement in
6-minute walk tests, an 11% faster stair climbing speed, and reduced self-reported
disability . Further studies are required to evaluate the effects of exercise in
older adults with pulmonary disease.
Where elders with specific disabilities are concerned, research again focuses
mostly on stroke. Cycle ergometry modified for hemiparetic stroke patients,
used thrice weekly for 30 minutes, produced improvements in workload, VO
maximum, exercise time, and systolic blood pressure . Treadmill exercise in
chronic stroke patients can also produce reductions in energy expenditure and
cardiovascular demands during walking at a given exercise intensity . For
elders who have gait difficulty secondary to OA or rheumatoid arthritis, aerobic
exercise can reduce pain and increase function [42,63].
Moderate-to-high-intensity aerobic exercise (five to six METs or more) for
30 minutes is a desirable goal for any patient but is obviously not a practical or
safe starting point for deconditioned elders . Any male patient older than
40 years and any female patient older than 50 to be enrolled in an endurance
frankel et al246
training program should first undergo a thorough medical examination, includ-
ing a resting EKG and an exercise test [5,23,30,31]. (See previously discussed
prescription information regarding strength training for specific contraindications
and conditions requiring further evaluation and treatment.)
The starting point for this mode of exercise depends largely on baseline
conditioning, transportation resources, and compliance. For a deconditioned older
adult or one who will be more able to comply with a home-based program, low-
intensity exercise may be the safest place to start. At this intensity, the patient
should complete four to five sessions per week. The goal should be the pre-
scription of exercises that maintain heart rate at an elevated level of 60% to 70%
of the maximum age-predicted rate or perceived exertion of 11 to 13 on the Borg
scale throughout the duration of exercise . Aerobic exercises such as tread-
mill or street walking, bicycling, swimming, dancing, and the like are appro-
priate. These may be started twice weekly for 20 to 30 minutes but increased as
rapidly as tolerated to approximately 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic
exercise on most if not all days of the week. Patients should be instructed to
increase the duration of exercise before increasing intensity.
For patients who have pulmonary disease, it is commonly accepted practice to
use supplemental oxygen where necessary to keep SpO
at greater than 88%.
These patients, as well as others with known cardiac or vascular impairments,
should be monitored for vital signs in a therapy gym by qualified staff, at least
initially. Some conditions require special monitoring. Where vascular claudica-
tion is present, patients are usually instructed to exercise to just before the point
of pain and try to maintain this level of intensity. Patients with impaired
autonomic nervous systems, such as those with diabetic neuropathy, may be
asked to employ alternative means of monitoring intensity, such as the Borg Scale
of Perceived Effort. Another option is the ‘‘talk test,’’ in which the patient’s
ability to engage in conversation during exercise is monitored and maintained
Patients who have neurotrauma, stroke, multiple sclerosis, or late effects of
poliomyelitis commonly experience physical and psychic fatigue at predictable
points in the day and may fatigue more easily in affected muscle groups. How-
ever, the physiatric community has known for many years that endurance exer-
cise introduced gradually and concurrently with energy conservation techniques
throughout the day may alleviate these symptoms. Patients are generally en-
couraged to schedule more strenuous activity and therapies for earlier in the day,
when energy is usually more abundant, and to make liberal use of naps in the
afternoon and rest breaks throughout the day to replenish energy.
The topic of balance and its relationship to falls in the elderly is covered in
great detail elsewhere in this issue. Balance is a complex trait and relies on the
collective integrity of multiple peripheral and central nervous system compo-
exercise in the elderly 247
nents. These include Golgi organs, Ruffini corpuscles, muscle spindles, large
myelinated proprioceptive nerve fibers, the posterior spinal cord columns, the
medial lemniscus and cerebellum, and the vestibular and visual systems. Together
these may be thought of as a ‘‘postural control system,’’ with multiple redundant
systems being employed to keep the body upright .
Effects of aging on balance
Deterioration in one or more aspects of the postural control system may occur
naturally with age. Consequently, falls are the leading cause of accidental death in
older persons . When activity declines greatly with a lengthy hospital stay or
other period of extreme immobility, general deconditioning may adversely affect
balance . Additionally, vascular disease, diabetes, excessive alcohol use,
medications, and nutritional deficiencies may cause damage to peripheral nerves
carrying proprioceptive information. Finally, Parkinson’s disease and other com-
mon neurologic disorders have been shown adversely to affect balance .
Benefits of balance training
Most research on balance training addresses effects on falls and osteoporosis,
for which weight-bearing exercise, including balance components such as weight
shifting or postural sway, is often prescribed. Tai Chi is a form of exercise train-
ing that shows positive effects on balance [69,70]. One study suggests that
Tai Chi participants were 27% less likely to fall than control counterparts ,
and other studies have shown improvement in fall risk assessment scores such
as those on the Berg scale [72,73]. Training with weighted vests also benefits
balance and is associated with reduction in fall risk indices . Balance exer-
cises for adults with specific disabilities have received limited research attention.
For adults who have diabetic peripheral neuropathy, a brief course of high-
velocity standing ankle exercises improved balance scores .
The superiority of one form of balance exercise over another has yet to be
determined, so prescriptions must be made using common sense. First, the use
of an assistive device such as a cane or walker concurrently with exercise should
be considered when specific impairments increase fall risk. Pain control should
also be provided by the most effective, least sedating means possible. The phy-
sician may wish to screen patients with recent falls or fractures, low body mass
index, decreased safety awareness due to dementia, poor vision or hearing, re-
duced proprioception due to neuropathy, or balance deficits secondary to parkin-
sonism for low bone density using dual emission x-ray absorptiometry scan
before initiating a balance exercise regimen. Appropriate disease-specific phar-
macologic treatment may then be prescribed, such as Vitamin D, calcium, or
bisphosphonates. Some data suggest that Vitamin D repletion may have an inde-
frankel et al248
pendent effect on falls and balance [76,77]. If exercise is chosen as a means of
enhancing bone density, more strenuous, weight-bearing forms of exercise offer
the greatest protective effect against bone loss. Moderate-to-high-intensity
aerobic exercise and strenuous PRT are shown to have the greatest benefit in
comprehensive literature reviews . Patients and therapists should be counseled
that improvements in bone density are generally seen over the course of a year or
more. Importantly, these forms of exercise also improve body mass and decrease
risk for falls.
When balance exercises are prescribed, aspects such as postural sway, weight
shifting, strength, and speed work should be emphasized. These may initially
be taught and monitored by a qualified therapist, but the patient should ultimately
be able to continue independently. Another option for balance is Tai Chi exercise.
Most insurance payers will not reimburse the patient for classes, but Tai Chi
may have additional cost-effect advantages. It is often supervised by a highly
trained instructor, which may enhance safety. It is also a sociable activity, which
may improve long-term compliance. Such classes, however, may be deferred
until after low-intensity exercise and pharmacologic treatment when osteoporosis
Balance exercise may easily be incorporated into strength or endurance rou-
tines three or four times weekly. The American College of Sports Medicine
recommends that a balance exercise program include both static and dynamic
balance components . The former include wide-base stance, narrow-base
stance, and single-leg stance held for 30 or more seconds with eyes closed. The
latter generally consist of walking exercises with various bases of support,
beginning with normal gait and progressively narrowing the base to heel-to-toe
gait. For both of these components, intensity may be varied by initially using an
aid such as a raised bar or countertop, then withdrawing the aid. Although adults
who have disabilities resulting from stroke, multiple sclerosis, neurotrauma, or
amputation may require assistance and supervision from others when starting
balance exercise, the prescribing practitioner should bear in mind the special
importance for these patients of achieving independence in this modality.
Flexibility describes the range of motion (ROM) around a joint or joints in the
body. The extensibility and intactness of many structures contribute to flexibility,
including joint articular surfaces and capsules, loose connective tissue about
muscles, joints and tendons, and the physical characteristics of muscles and ten-
The American College of Sports Medicine specifies two forms of flexibility
exercise . In dynamic stretching, the joint is moved through its full range
repetitively. Static stretching involves moving the joint to end range and holding
it there for some time. An additional form of flexibility training, proprioceptive
neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), was developed shortly after the Second World
exercise in the elderly 249
War to rehabilitate patients who had developed spasticity and contractures from
injuries sustained in battle. This technique involves moving the affected joint
diagonally through multiple planes just to the point of a spastic response, which is
when the muscle spindle organs in the muscle group, being stretched, begin to
trigger the hyperactive reflex that causes spasticity in that muscle group. The
muscle group is then contracted at 50% to 100% intensity for 6 to 8 seconds,
which inhibits the reflex and allows the joint to be moved beyond this point .
With time, substantial gains in ROM can be achieved.
Effects of aging on flexibility
The aging process results in decreased collagen synthesis in skin, ligaments,
tendons, and underlying tissues, which may lead to slower healing and adaptation
to changing movement patterns. Blood flow through these tissues and through
muscle also decreases, further inhibiting these processes. Prolonged bed rest or
common neurologic impairments in the elderly population that weaken muscles
or cause spasticity lead to contracture by several mechanisms . First, joint
capsules and surrounding loose connective tissue form collagen cross links that
may lead in time to irreversible contracture. Tendons and muscles, when main-
tained in a single position for extended periods, also become structurally altered
and can shorten permanently. It is not known whether the relative inactivity
characteristic of many elderly patients can produce similar permanent changes in
ROM with time.
Fractures that displace tendons or rupture of tendons themselves enhances the
risk for contracture, because tendon repair will produce disorganized collagen
fibers unless tension is applied through the tendon in the post-repair period.
Overlying conditions in elderly patients, such as inflammatory or noninflamma-
tory arthritis, trauma, central nervous system insult, or pain, may foster contrac-
ture and impair function.
Benefits of flexibility training
Of all exercise modes, flexibility is the least studied in elderly patients.
Investigators have generally performed studies of flexibility while concurrently
studying other modes of exercise. For instance, the aforementioned study by
Rimmer and colleagues  examined a group of predominantly African Ameri-
can stroke survivors, using an exercise regimen that included discrete com-
ponents of strength, endurance, and flexibility training. Improvements were seen
in hamstring and low back flexibility. Another group studied the specific effects
of strength and cardiovascular training on flexibility . Strength training both
alone and in combination with aerobic training produced the greatest effects on
flexibility around the elbow, knee, shoulder, and hip. In both these examples, it is
not clear what functional advantage flexibility gains may have conferred.
frankel et al250
No clear precautions against or contraindications to flexibility exercise exist,
although gentle stretching should be used at first to avoid injury. Stretching
should ideally be performed daily. A general prescription recommended for
other age groups is four to five repetitions of approximately 30 seconds each for
the most important joints and muscle groups . Flexibility training may be
incorporated into strength or endurance training or performed independently of
other exercises. The routine should include both dynamic and static components.
Prescribing physicians should also recommend techniques such as PNF in the
presence of specific disabilities such as spasticity, resulting from disorders such
as stroke or multiple sclerosis. Flexibility exercises are low intensity and can be
performed sitting or lying down. They may be an especially useful warm-up for
patients with impairments in endurance and balance.
This article incorporates some of the latest available data on the benefits of
exercise in the elderly. The authors’ methods are sound and frequently inno-
vative. Even so, research methods in this field are not yet as sophisticated as in
areas such as stroke and neurotrauma. Most studies use only local samples, often
drawn by convenience. The Western world would no doubt benefit from a more
unified and balanced approach to exercise research in this rapidly growing patient
population. Interfacility databases, similar to those for brain and spinal cord
injury, could be used to create study populations that are more indicative of the
population of elders as a whole, permitting the drawing of stronger conclusions.
Furthermore, few studies focus on disabled elders. Because the incidence of
stroke, cardiac dysfunction, and related impairments is high in these patients,
wider study of this population would be beneficial.
Although this article focuses on individual types of exercise and their con-
tributions to patient health, any exercise program for a senior will incorporate
aspects of them all. The program must be tailored to the individual needs of
the patient, based on physical examination and laboratory and diagnostic data.
(See case study in Box 2.)
The American College of Sports Medicine, while acknowledging that severely
deconditioned older adults may prefer to begin with a low-intensity program such
as twice weekly PRT, advises that frequency and intensity be increased to achieve
an overall moderate-to-heavy-intensity goal. This principle holds especially true
for endurance exercise, which is the best demonstrated by research to have a
positive impact on health .
The community physician will undoubtedly encounter questions about
whether exercise is safe for a deconditioned elder. Taking into account the
aforementioned data, most physiatrists would advocate that the question be recast
as one of whether an elder is safe remaining sedentary. A comprehensive over-
exercise in the elderly 251
view of secondary prevention cardiovascular rehabilitation programs by Lisa
Womack, MEd, found that a major contributing factor to poor patient compliance
is ‘‘lack of physician endorsement’’ . Accordingly, the physician should
always emphasize to elders not only the specific recommended exercise program
but also the benefits to be expected from it.
 Worsowicz GM, Stewart DG, Phillips EM, et al. Social and economic implications of aging.
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Box 2. Case study
An 82-year-old white female is hospitalized for a femoral neck
fracture after tripping over her cat at home. She undergoes urgent
hip hemiarthroplasty and makes an uneventful recovery, save for
acute pain. You are called 3 days into her hospital course to con-
sult for pain control and discharge recommendations. The patient
was widowed 10 years ago and lives alone in a high-rise apartment
building with ground-level entry and elevator. She does not smoke
or drink. She rarely goes out, except to the grocery store across the
street. She has a few friends in her building, with whom she visits
a couple of times a week, but no family nearby. She reads avidly
and does crossword puzzles. Her past medical history is significant
for anxiety, for which she takes Ativan as needed. She also under-
went closed reduction and casting for a Colles’ fracture of the wrist
7 years ago.
What are the possible deficits that put this patient at risk for
her fracture? Include observations about premorbid physical
conditioning as well as underlying medical conditions.
What further work-up may be indicated?
Develop an exercise plan for this woman. What is the best
short-term plan while she heals from her surgery? What long-
term physical fitness goals do you advise?
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