Joining a regular exercise program may help older people move better, but it doesn't necessarily mean they are more steady on their feet or will lose their fear of falling, according to a German study.
"We can't take it for granted that if we improve on the physical performance that it will translate over to the psychological dimension," said Ellen Freiberger, lead author of the study and a sports medicine and gerontology researcher at Friedrich-Alexander-Universitat Erlangen-Nurnberg in Germany.
For the study, which appeared in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, Freiberger and her colleagues set out to compare different types of exercise and what impact, if any, they had on physical performance, falls and the fear of falling among older people.
The researchers recruited 280 people over age 70 who were still living independently in Erlangen, Germany. Between 2003 and 2006, the participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups and followed for the two years.
Of the four groups, one did not exercise at all. The other three used strength and balance exercises, but two also included either endurance exercises, which researchers used to gauge the participants' fitness, or an education program to measure their fear of falling.
The final group's regimen included elements of an educational program designed to reduce the fear of falling, and the people did mental exercises to target traits such as concentration and short-term memory.
Everyone in the study's exercise groups attended two one-hour sessions per week for 16 weeks. Each session had fewer than 15 people in it.
At the end, there was no difference between the four groups in the scores that tracked falls or the fear of falls, and only a slight improvement in the time it took to walk six meters.
For the no-exercise group, it took 51 seconds to walk six meters at a fast pace two years after the start of the study. It took the group that only did strength and balance exercises 48 seconds, which was the same amount of time for the group with the endurance exercises.
The fourth group, with the education component, came in the worst with 56 seconds.
Other researchers have seen positive outcomes from similar exercise programs, and one said the new study's limitations may help explain its results.
One analysis of previous research, which was published after the data for the new study was collected, suggested the minimum amount of time needed to help prevent falls was 50 hours of exercise in a structured environment, said Debbie Rose, co-director of the Fall Prevention Center of Excellence.
The new study only completed 32 hours, added Rose, who is also a researcher on aging at the California State University, Fullerton, She noted researchers only included elements of the program that addressed the fear of falling.
It may also be harder to see improvements if participants were high-functioning to start with. "The one thing we know is that there is no quick fix in the reduction of falls," she said.