A new study suggests that you’re never too old to get moving, showcasing how exercise can help improve memory and reverse muscle loss in older adults – ultimately helping them to recover from disability and regain independence.
Dr. Thomas Gill, a professor medicine at Yale University School of Medicine, and a team of colleagues followed more than 1,600 elderly adults who were mostly sedentary at the beginning of the study. 
The participants ranged in age from 70 to 89 years old. All of them had some functional limitations, but were capable of walking about 1/4 of a mile in 15 minutes or less, unassisted by another person or walker. 
Gill had one half of the group embark on a walking and strength and balance training regimen, of which walking was the cornerstone. The team followed the participants for nearly 3 years and discovered that the individuals in the exercise group reduced the amount of time they spent with a “major mobility disability” by 25%, compared to those that did not exercise.
“The benefit wasn’t just limited to preventing initial onset of disability but was also effective in promoting recovery after a disability. Then, once the recovery occurred, the intervention was effective in preventing subsequent episodes of disability.”
Most studies only look at whether exercise prevents disability, but most elderly people spend time cycling in and out of periods of immobility. This new study shows that with the help of exercise, a disability doesn’t need to become permanent.
“This demonstrates that a physical activity program really has continued, sustained benefit over an extended period of time.”
Most older Americans don’t get enough exercise. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week, plus 2 strength sessions that hit all the major muscle groups. 
However, just 28% of adults age 75 and up meet the recommendations for aerobic activity, and a mere 8% also do the recommended amount of strength training.
Bradley Cardinal, a professor of kinesiology at Oregon State University who wasn’t involved with the study, said that many elderly people believe that older age is a time for relaxing, and view physical activity as dangerous or unnatural. He said that those beliefs are “pervasive among older adults,” even though, for the majority of them, meeting the minimum requirements “is doable.”
Gill said it’s all in the wording:
“We try to frame this as more physical activity than exercise. We talk with older folks and many say, ‘I can’t exercise, but maybe I can become more physically active.'”
The desire of nearly everyone is to remain independent in older age, and the researchers found that some of the participants – all of whom were advised to “start low and go slow” – were able to get rid of their canes after 6 months of exercise.
“Older people tell us that what’s most important to them is maintaining their independence. What we’re learning is, once disability develops, it’s not uncommon for older adults to recover. It’s not just a one-way street into further decline.” 
The study is published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.