New look at health of older patients

Photos courtesy of the WSU Student Recreation Center.
As fitness guru Jack LaLanne, 91, advocated in his 1950s TV show, physical activity is key to maintaining lasting health and quality of life. Janet Purath, assistant professor in the WSU Intercollegiate College of Nursing, hopes to re-emphasize that philosophy by adding functional fitness exams to routine health care visits for those over age 60.

“U.S. demographics show that by the year 2030 about 20 percent of the population will be over age 60,” said Purath, who also is a nurse practitioner. “Our goal is to have … people live a better quality of life longer, with fewer years of illness and infirmity.”

Fitness level — rather than weight — is a better indicator of health as people age, Purath said. She suggests that “maybe we should start looking at older adult health in a different way than for younger people.”

Fitness exams
To that end, Purath is promoting a short functional fitness assessment that could be used by primary care providers to objectively evaluate fitness level in an office setting.

In a study conducted with former colleague and nurse Susan Buchholz, Purath tested 34 individuals over age 60 utilizing the Senior Fitness Test (SFT). It includes activities such as an arm-curl test, two-minute step test, chair sit-and-reach test and more.

The researchers also took into account self-reported data on demographics, general health and well-being, social support and physical activity level.

The study showed that those who scored highest on the physical fitness tests were also those who reported better general health and fewer chronic problems. 

Evaluation pending
Nevertheless, some health-care providers are hesitant to prescribe physical activity for older adults, who may already be suffering from a range of disabilities or diseases. And it doesn’t help that the topic of physical activity is often buried beneath a laundry list of other concerns during an already full office visit.

Purath hopes to dispel that reluctance. Though final conclusions await clinical evaluation, she believes the functional fitness test could provide an easy and efficient way for health-care providers to gather baseline information on older patients.

Then, by comparing people of similar age and gender, she feels physicians could more comfortably recommend appropriate programs for aerobics as well as strength, endurance, flexibility and balance training.
To maintain functional fitness:
• 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five or more days per week.
• Strength training at least two days per week, including upper and lower extremity training.
• Balance exercises, such as tai chi.
For more guidelines on exercise, see the National Institute on Aging ONLINE @

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