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Study: Diet-exercise can improve physical performance in obese seniors

May 19, 2017

"In older, obese people, it may be more important to improve physical function and quality of life, rather than to reverse or treat risk factors for cardiovascular disease," says Villareal, now chief of geriatrics at the New Mexico Veterans Affairs Health Care System and professor of medicine at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, both in Albuquerque. "Combining exercise and weight loss isn't designed so much to extend their life expectancy as it is to improve their quality of life during their remaining years and to help seniors avoid being admitted to a nursing home."

There is some debate, however, about whether it's good for elderly people to lose weight, even if they are obese. Some studies have found an association between weight loss in seniors and mortality risk, but Villareal says many of those studies did not distinguish between voluntary weight loss and involuntary weight loss that may be related to illness.

But even if voluntary weight loss carries no significant risk of shortening life, another potential drawback is that when older people lose fat, they also tend to lose muscle and bone.

In this study, the researchers did find slight reductions in lean body mass and bone mineral density among those who lost weight, but the decreases were smaller in the combined diet-exercise group than in those who dieted or exercised alone. The diet-exercise group participants lost 3 percent of their lean body mass, with a 1 percent bone mineral loss in the key area of the hip. Those who only dieted lost 5 percent of their lean body mass and 3 percent in bone mineral density at the hip.

Just as in younger people, the prevalence of obesity has increased in the elderly. About 20 percent of people 65 and older are obese, and that is expected to continue rising as more baby boomers become senior citizens. Elevated weight is known to be associated with impairments in daily living, limitations in mobility and an increased risk for physical decline and frailty.

"Although losing weight is beneficial and exercise also is good, when seniors do both, they get a greater improvement," he says.

Source: Washington University School of Medicine