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Open Access Highly Accessed Review

Physical activity and functional limitations in older adults: a systematic review related to Canada's Physical Activity Guidelines

Donald H Paterson12* and Darren ER Warburton34

Author Affiliations

1 School of Kinesiology, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada

2 Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada

3 Cardiovascular Physiology Rehabilitation Laboratory, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

4 Experimental Medicine Programme, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

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International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2010, 7:38  doi:10.1186/1479-5868-7-38

Published: 11 May 2010

Abstract

Background

The purpose was to conduct systematic reviews of the relationship between physical activity of healthy community-dwelling older (>65 years) adults and outcomes of functional limitations, disability, or loss of independence.

Methods

Prospective cohort studies with an outcome related to functional independence or to cognitive function were searched, as well as exercise training interventions that reported a functional outcome. Electronic database search strategies were used to identify citations which were screened (title and abstract) for inclusion. Included articles were reviewed to complete standardized data extraction tables, and assess study quality. An established system of assessing the level and grade of evidence for recommendations was employed.

Results

Sixty-six studies met inclusion criteria for the relationship between physical activity and functional independence, and 34 were included with a cognitive function outcome. Greater physical activity of an aerobic nature (categorized by a variety of methods) was associated with higher functional status (expressed by a host of outcome measures) in older age. For functional independence, moderate (and high) levels of physical activity appeared effective in conferring a reduced risk (odds ratio ~0.5) of functional limitations or disability. Limitation in higher level performance outcomes was reduced (odds ratio ~0.5) with vigorous (or high) activity with an apparent dose-response of moderate through to high activity. Exercise training interventions (including aerobic and resistance) of older adults showed improvement in physiological and functional measures, and suggestion of longer-term reduction in incidence of mobility disability. A relatively high level of physical activity was related to better cognitive function and reduced risk of developing dementia; however, there were mixed results of the effects of exercise interventions on cognitive function indices.

Conclusions

There is a consistency of findings across studies and a range of outcome measures related to functional independence; regular aerobic activity and short-term exercise programmes confer a reduced risk of functional limitations and disability in older age. Although a precise characterization of a minimal or effective physical activity dose to maintain functional independence is difficult, it appears moderate to higher levels of activity are effective and there may be a threshold of at least moderate activity for significant outcomes.