Exercsie and Physiology Information

Senior Women Pump Iron for Old Bones
Pamela Fayerman, The Vancouver Sun


Weight training reduces risk of elderly females falling by as much as 57 per cent, study indicates.

VANCOUVER - Elderly women can reduce their risk of falling by as much as 57 per cent if they do about two hours of supervised weight training twice a week, according to a new study by University of B.C./Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute investigators.

Published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, it is the first study of its kind to compare the benefits of different types of exercise -- resistance (weight training), agility and stretching (posture).

Pumping iron held a clear advantage, although all the female participants (aged 75 to 85) in the six-month study enjoyed a lower fall-risk score by the end of their training program. They all started the program with bone-mass scores which predisposed them to injuries from falling. Older women with osteoporosis are considered to have a greater risk of falling, and of being injured in such falls, because of compromised balance and muscular strength, compared to their counterparts who do not have osteoporosis.

Dr. Karim Khan, study co-author and a leading bone health expert, said the results are "dramatic and fantastic," especially because about 30 per cent of people over age 65 fall at least once a year and 95 per cent of hip fractures in the elderly are caused by falls. The resulting fractures often have devastating results because 50 per cent of patients end up losing their independence and another 20 per cent die within a year.

A study published by Statistics Canada Tuesday in Health Reports shows the magnitude of the problem as nine per cent of men and 15 per cent of women over the age of 65 were shown to have suffered a fall after tripping or slipping in a 2000/2001 survey of households across Canada.

Only teenage boys (12 per cent) and girls (nine per cent) had such high rates of injuries caused by falls, but in the case of teenagers, the falls most often stemmed from athletic or recreational pursuits, not from slipping, stumbling or tripping as is the case with seniors.

"Falls and fear of falling are major concerns for older people," lead author Teresa Liu-Ambrose said of the research which has confirmed weight training as a bona fide fall risk reduction strategy.

Seventy-six year old Richmond resident Betty Sullivan knows all about fractures caused by falling. She has spent a good chunk of the past 15 years in wrist casts.

"My nickname is Betty Bone Breaker. I've broken each wrist twice and I broke my arm as well," she said.

When Sullivan was asked to participate in the study, she grabbed the opportunity.

"My eldest daughter who's 50 got checked for osteoarthritis and she got after me to do the same so I did and, of course, I have it, which explains why I have shrunk in height nearly two inches," she said.

Sullivan was asked to participate in the study because of her diagnosed low bone mass and she joined 97 other women who were randomly assigned to one of three exercise programs at the South Slope Family YMCA. Liu-Ambrose said the exercise program has proven so beneficial that its principles have been adopted into a provincewide "osteofit" program that is offered at numerous community centres.

Sullivan said the weight training improved her overall well-being so much that even after the study ended, she made a commitment to keep it up, and goes to the Steveston Community Centre, in addition to golfing and walking, to keep fit.

"The best thing of all is that I can get into the bathtub now by myself because of the strength I have now to support myself as I get in and out. And I haven't fallen once since starting the weight training program. It helps with my balance. I'm more steady on my feet and I'm more confident."

Khan said the risk of falling is based on objective tests which measure visual acuity, strength, reaction times, perception and steadiness. While the weight training group lowered their fall risk the most (57.3 per cent) the participants who did agility training also had a dramatic risk reduction (47.5 per cent) and the stretching group improved by 20.2 per cent.

Those in the stretching group learned proper posture and also did deep- breathing and relaxation techniques. The agility group did ball games, relay races, dance movements and obstacle courses to improve hand-eye/foot-eye coordination, balance and reaction time.

Khan said the study showed that the strength training has an edge on other forms of exercise but the results do not come quickly as the difference in fall risk advantage really only became apparent after the participants had been doing it for at least four months.

Researchers acknowledge that exercise interventions in the elderly are labour intensive because the activities must be fully supervised, so that frail elderly people don't injure themselves. There were 39 falls documented in the study, none of which resulted in injury.

The study authors say it demonstrates that women with low bone mass have the capacity to participate in demanding exercise programs with acceptable risk. And while it may be expensive to provide free training in a publicly funded medicare system, the fact that hospital costs of falls is $120 million in B.C. annually, means it may be cost-effective to provide such programming.

Beatrice Pickwell, 83, says she benefitted so much she hired a private trainer she now sees twice a week.

"I drive to her house and she has everything set up in her garage. It's enjoyable, it's made me stronger and my upper back pain is gone," says the Richmond resident.

For the location of an osteofit program in your community, call 604-875-2555.