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Benefits of walking for older adults: NPR story missed a cautionary detail


4 Star



Walking Fends Off Disability, And It's Not Too Late To Start

Our Review Summary

Walking in the mountiansThis story focuses on a study showing that elderly persons recovering from a disability get back to normal 25 percent sooner if they participate in a program of physical activity including “150 minutes of aerobic activity as well as strength, flexibility and balance training” per week. It points out that “walking was the cornerstone of the program.”

While it described the program in helpful terms, the story was light on the study’s specific findings, and seemed to assume that all people in this age group would see comparable results. Also, we would have been more satisfied if the story had mentioned early on that people in this age group should consult with their physicians before undertaking any kind of exercise program.


Why This Matters

The story points out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that “just 28 percent of those 75 and up meet the recommendation for aerobic activity, and only 8 percent also did the suggested amount of strength training.”  It says that too many of the elderly are sedentary, believing they’ve earned a focus on relaxation.  But this and many other studies outline numerous health benefits from exercise and physical activity, even among the elderly, assuming their physical status is up for it. Physicians should help their patients decide what kind of physical program they should undertake, and as the story shows, even regular walking can be very helpful.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

We’ll rate this category as non-applicable since the thrust of the story and the project it reports about is for elderly persons to adopt a routine of physical activity, the core of which is walking, which costs nothing. Certainly some costs are possible, say if for example a gym membership was desired, but neither the study or the story recommended that.  Simple walking seemed to net ample positive results.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

While quantification was minimal in this story, we’ll rate it barely satisfactory since it states those participating in the physical activity part of the study “cut the amount of time that people spent with a “major mobility disability” — defined as being unable to walk a quarter mile — by 25 percent compared to the education program.”  But 25% of what?

It also stated that, “Previous findings from the same study showed that the exercise program lowered the risk of becoming disabled in the first place; this one showed that it sped recovery from an episode of disability and lowered the risk of subsequent episodes.”  However, it failed to explain how much that risk was lowered, or whether it was an absolute risk or a relative risk.  Statements offered by others in the story said that “people who engage in physical activity have a lower risk for heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, depression, cognitive impairment and functional decline,” but gave no measures of how much those risks were lowered.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

This story basically recommends physical activity for the elderly, which most experts would support. But the study in question focused on “sedentary people between 70 and 89 years old who had some functional limitations, but who could walk about a quarter of a mile in 15 minutes or less, unassisted by another person or a walker. (Canes were OK.)”  There is obviously a great deal of variation in a population that broad and many included in that age bracket may also have balance, pain or stability issues that might preclude jumping into a similar program.  We would have been happier if the story focused early on any new program of physical activity being clearly linked to an initial consult with the person’s physician.  While the story does mention at the end that the authors of an accompanying editorial advised physicians that, “Prescribing exercise may be just as important as prescribing medications — perhaps even more important in some cases,” that seemed insufficient compared to the consequences of physical-activity-induced injury among the elderly.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

As mentioned before, the story showed that the physical activity program “sped recovery from an episode of disability and lowered the risk of subsequent episodes” by 25 percent.  It also explains that the study itself followed 1,600 participants for about 2.7 years — a considerable length of time for such a study.  But that’s really the extent of the information offered.  It describes participants only as being “sedentary” without defining the extent of that state.  Nor does it give any information about the strength or endurance of the participants at the beginning and at the end of the study, indications that might help readers place themselves in a comparable continuum.  It doesn’t even provide a gender breakdown of the participants although we know there are gender differences in stress and exercise among the aged.  The story, while informative, deserved more specific information.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


The story does not commit disease-mongering.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


The story quotes an independent source, and doesn’t appear to have missed any conflicts of interest.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Applicable

The most likely alternative is a rehab program that would incorporate many of the same elements as the study protocol.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


Since walking and physical activity are available to all capable of such exercise, there is no question about availability here.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


Yes, the story establishes novelty this way:

“Previous research has suggested that exercise can improve memory and reverse muscle loss in older adults, among other benefits.” and  “Previous findings from the same study showed that the exercise program lowered the risk of becoming disabled in the first place; this one showed that it sped recovery from an episode of disability and lowered the risk of subsequent episodes.”

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


There is no evidence that this story relied on a news release.

Total Score: 5 of 8 Satisfactory


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