Walking more and losing weight can improve mobility in older, obese adults with poor cardiovascular health, according to a new study.

On average, study participants who participated in an exercise and weight loss program walked a 400-meter distance 5 percent faster than those whose program only educated them on aging. Those with the most limited mobility improved by as much as 20 percent, the researchers said.

These findings run counter to the commonly held belief that it is unhealthy for older adults to lose weight, the researchers said.

"To improve mobility, physical activity has to be coupled with weight loss," said study researcher Jack Rejeski, a professor of health and exercise science at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "This is one of the first large studies to show that weight loss improves the functional health of older people with cardiovascular disease," Rejeski said in a statement released by the university.

The study addressed what to do to help seniors with poor mobility , and it also showed that community agencies can be used effectively to get seniors the help they need, the researchers said.

"With 60 percent of adults over age 65 walking less than one mile per week, and a rapidly growing population of older adults, the need for cost-effective, community-based intervention programs to improve the mobility of seniors is critical," Rejeski said.

The researchers tracked 288 participants, ages 60 to 79, over an 18-month period. For some participants, the researchers provided a physical activity and weight loss intervention , for others, only a physical activity intervention and for the rest, only education on aging.

The physical activity group did well, but the most dramatic effect was found in the participants who combined an increase in physical activity with weight loss, the researchers said.

The 400-meter walk is a widely-used measure of mobility disability in older adults because for those who cannot walk this distance, the likelihood of losing their independence increases dramatically, the researchers said.

Rejeski used an analogy to describe the loss of mobility in seniors who often don't realize its seriousness. "It is like being in a canoe paddling down a river, and being completely unaware that a waterfall is only a short distance away. Once your canoe starts down the waterfall of disability, the consequences are severe."

The "waterfall" can include hospitalizations, worsening disability, institutionalization, and death that are more likely when seniors lose the basic ability to get around. Seniors with limited mobility require significantly more high-cost medical care, he said.

Next, the researchers will develop a model that can be replicated at similar sites across the state and the country.

The study was published online today (Jan. 24) in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.

Pass it on: Older, obese adults with poor cardiovascular health can improve their mobility by walking more and losing weight, according to a new study.

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