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Exercise turns back seniors' physical clocks by 10 yrs, cuts medical costs: Japan study

Participants in the "course to build an anti-collapse physique" are seen moving their arms up and down in Miyakonojo, Miyazaki Prefecture. (Mainichi/Kenta Somatani)

MIYAZAKI -- Doing nine months of weekly exercises designed to help elderly people avoid nursing care can set their physical clocks back a decade and reduce medical costs, a Miyazaki Prefectural Nursing University study has concluded.

    The university team has found that the exercise routine helped participants avoid the need for nursing care. The rare study, based on observation of seniors doing a "course to build an anti-collapse physique" in Miyakonojo, Miyazaki Prefecture, is likely to increase the number of participants in similar courses.

    In late June, 16 participants sitting on chairs arranged in a half-circle at a community center in Miyakonojo worked out for about an hour, doing exercises including moving their arms up and down while singing nursery rhymes such as "Kagome Kagome." The eldest member of the group was 94. Fusako Nakamura, 80, who joined the course five years ago, said with a smile, "I used to have trouble walking, but now I don't."

    The course, organized by the Miyakonojo Municipal Government and carried out voluntarily by Miyakonojo residents since fiscal 2014, uses similar programs sponsored by the city of Kochi and the Okayama Prefecture city of Tsuyama, as a reference. The city of Miyakonojjo sends staff including nurses to the venues once every six months for health education and other purposes. Some 636 people participated in the course at 25 locations in fiscal 2014. In fiscal 2020, there were 3,834 participants at 253 venues.

    The university team analyzed about 3,500 people who had participated continuously in the course for three years and three months or longer at 115 venues, and about 36,000 non-participants aged 60 and older. Tests revealed that the participants' muscle strength and balance, as well as agility were at a level some 10 years younger than their non-participating peers. Participants in their 60s could stand on one leg with their eyes open for about 30 seconds longer after nine months in the course. The younger the participants were, the greater was the effect. Grip strength, which usually weakens as people get older, was also retained through the exercises.

    The medical cost per person was inversely proportionate to how often they participated in the course. The team estimated that those who joined the course more than eight times could reduce medical costs by 60,000 yen (about $545), and those at the meets more than five times could save 30,000 yen (about $270) over a three-year period. In total, some 60 million yen (about $550,000) in medical expenses were saved, according to the researchers' estimate. Disparities in health consciousness apparently also played a part, in addition to the exercises.

    Kushima Municipal Hospital director Toshiharu Eto, who was a Miyazaki Prefectural Nursing University professor until fiscal 2019, analyzed the data. He commented, "It's easy for people in age brackets that still have basal muscular strength to recover mobility function. If people start exercising consciously in their 40s or 50s -- instead of thinking, 'I'm still all right' -- they can curb loss of muscle strength."

    (Japanese original by Kenta Somatani, Miyazaki Bureau)

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