Physiotherapist and researcher Jennie Hewitt with Feros Care Wommin Bay residents (l-r) Cleo Bell, Julie Knox and Bren Catchpole, and USydney physiotherapy students Dom Dagher and Chelsea Clark.

A PhD research study being undertaken by physiotherapist Jennie Hewitt is showing that tailored exercise programs can deliver significant benefits for elderly residents in aged care facilities.

The study, the first of its kind ever conducted in Australia or internationally for residents of aged care, has shown improvements of up to 50 per cent in mobility and falls-reduction in participants doing a program focusing on resistance and balance exercises.

A total of 221 people aged 70 to 101 years (mean age: 86) have been involved so far. The results are immensely encouraging, according to Ms Hewitt, who is the Positive Living Coordinator for Feros Care in the Northern Rivers.

Supervised by senior academics at The University of Sydney, Ms Hewitt has been conducting the milestone study since 2012. The participants reside in 16 aged care facilities in this region and Southeast Queensland.

“After receiving medical clearance, we ensure that each person’s program is individually designed, and that their engagement is closely monitored,” she said.

“While it is generally accepted that exercise is more beneficial than passive treatments, it is not enough, and indeed can be dangerous, to simply ask residents  to get up out of their chairs and walk. Studies that used this approach returned an increase in falls rates.

“It is important that individualised, progressive strength and balance work be prescribed.”

Falls have been found to be markedly reduced among members of the participating groups compared to usual care. Balance, mobility and walking speed have also been much enhanced.

An important part of the program is a range of high-tech exercise equipment for seniors provided free of charge by leading Finnish company HUR.

The equipment was loaned for the duration of the trial, with three aged care facilities going on to purchase it after seeing the benefits.
Supervision and support is provided by facility staff as well as physiotherapists. Final year physiotherapy students from The University of Sydney whose practicum placements are coordinated by the University Centre for Rural Health North Coast have been able to participate in helping with the gym program at Feros Village Wommin Bay.

Jennie Hewitt told GPSpeak she hopes the results of the study will provide an impetus for older people in the broader community to be encouraged and helped to participate in appropriate exercise programs.

“It is not just people in residential aged care who spend inordinate amounts of time either sitting or lying down,” she said.

“Many elderly people at home are in similar circumstances and should be able to derive comparable benefits from undertaking properly planned and assisted exercise. But they can’t do it on their own, and require support to access the professionals and services to assist them manage their wellbeing.”