It’s no secret that as people age it often gets more difficult to move freely, but consider this statistic: 1 in 4 women over 65 is unable to walk two blocks or climb a flight of stairs, according to a new study from researchers at UC San Diego published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Light-intensity exercise like walking and gardening can help preserve older women’s ability to live free of mobility disability.

“All movement counts if you want to maintain mobility, not just moderate-to-vigorous exercise,” said first author Nicole Glass, a doctoral candidate in the San Diego State University/UC San Diego joint doctoral program in public health.

Researchers found that women who spent the most time performing light-intensity physical activity had a 46% lower risk of mobility loss compared to women who participated in lower levels of physical activity. Similar results were observed among white, Black and Latina women. Women with and without obesity also reduced their risk of mobility disability, but the benefit was strongest among women with a body mass index of less than 30.

Light-intensity physical activity is often overlooked as a form of exercise, said co-author John Bellettiere, professor of epidemiology at UC San Diego’s Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science. Light-intensity activity includes things like walking from the car to the store, getting up and making a cup of tea, or standing and emptying the dishwasher.

“These movements accumulate,” Bellettiere said.

Current activity guidelines for Americans do not consider light-intensity activities, which don’t cause a person to breathe heavily or sweat, he said. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults who are generally fit with no limiting health conditions should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity.

For many older adults those suggested guidelines are out of reach, said senior author Andrea LaCroix, professor and chief of the division of epidemiology at UC San Diego’s Wertheim School. Perhaps the guidelines need to take into account that the energy cost of movement increases with age, she said.

This study may help shift the paradigm.

“The beauty of this study is that it takes this [the increased effort of exercise as a person ages] into account, and gives older women credit for the movement they do,” Bellettiere said. “Light-intensity activity is beneficial. It increases mobility.”

Study participants wore a research-grade accelerometer, but anyone who can afford a fitness tracking wearable can keep track of their movement.

“Once you are aware of your movement, you have a tendency to increase it,” Bellettiere said.

“Every move you make is beneficial. It helps you move more, which is critical to maintaining your independence. Keep moving,” Glass said.

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