Physical exercise can help combat signs of frailty in older adults

The Bottom Line

  • Frailty, characterized by weakness, disability and limited mobility is a common condition in older adults.
  • Frail older adults are at greater risk of becoming injured, disabled and hospitalized.
  • Physical exercise can help improve some conditions associated with aging and frailty including walking speed.

It’s inevitable: as we age we begin to lose a lot of what we took for granted when we were younger, such as strength, speed, endurance, balance and flexibility. At some point we may become “frail,” a term yet to be clearly defined but one that generally refers to older adults who are weak, exhausted, have limited physical function, and walk slowly – if at all (1;2).

There is no way to predict when someone will become frail. We know of seniors in their 80s and 90s who are still healthy and active and show no signs of slowing down, while people 20 or more years their junior are already struggling with mobility issues and performing routine tasks.

Keeping older adults active and independent for as long as possible – while promoting their health and safety – are priorities for our healthcare system. Seniors who become frail are at greater risk of falling, getting hurt, becoming disabled and being hospitalized (3). For seniors and their families, symptoms of frailty seriously detract from a good quality of life and enjoyment of those “golden years.”

So what can be done? Physical exercise has long been prescribed as a way to improve physical functioning in older adults and several relevant studies have shown promising results (4;5). Research specific to frail older adults was the focus of a recent systematic review to determine if exercise improved mobility, walking speed, muscle strength, balance and endurance (6). The review examined 19 randomized controlled trials involving more than 1,500 community-dwelling older adults. Participants took part in multi-component exercise programs including aerobic and strength training activities.

What the research tells us

The results were encouraging for at least some outcomes: physical exercise appeared to significantly increase walking speed and to modestly improve other aspects of movement and mobility in frail older adults. However the exercise programs did not appear to have a noticeable positive impact on balance, strength or endurance.

There was no clear indication of what exercises were most effective, or how often or at what intensity they should be performed for best results. Further research to address such questions will help in the design and delivery of more effective programs to help older adults stay active, engaged and moving with confidence.

Click here to read more about improving your walking speed.

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Author Details


  1.  Fried LP, Tangen CM, Walston J, et al. Frailty in older adults: Evidence for a phenotype. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2001; 56:M146-56.
  2. Rockwood K, Stadnyk K, MacKnight C, et al. A brief clinical instrument to classify frailty in elderly people. Lancet. 1999; 353:205-6.
  3. Sternberg SA, Wershof Schwartz A, Karunananthan S, et al. The identification of frailty: A systematic literature review. J AM Geriatr Soc. 2011; 59:2129-38.
  4. Chodzko-Zajko WJ, Proctor DN, Fiatarone Singh MA, et al. American College of Sports Medicine position stand: Exercise and physical activity for older adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009; 41:1510-30.
  5. Gates S, Fisher JD, Cooke MW, et al. Multifactorial assessment and targeted intervention for preventing falls and injuries among older people in community and emergency care settings: Systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2008; 336:130-3.
  6. Gine-Garriga M, Roque-Figul M, Coll-Planas L, et al. Physical exercise interventions for improving performance-based measures of physical function in community-dwelling, frail older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2014; 95: 753-69.

DISCLAIMER: The blogs are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own healthcare professionals.

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