“I just want to be able to open a jar.” “I want to walk up stairs without holding on to the rail.” “I know I can’t do the things I used to do… I can feel myself getting weaker every day.” “I want to stay in my home as long as possible.”
These familiar statements are often heard by PhD candidate and HMRI researcher Isobel Stoodley. Isobel, along with University of Newcastle researcher Professor Lisa Wood, are currently conducting a clinical trial to prevent this loss of strength and function that occurs as we age. “It’s important for us to focus on strategies that will prevent hospitalisations, with more people living longer but not necessarily living well,” Professor Wood says.
“By intervening at an early stage, we can hopefully improve body composition and keep people healthier for longer,” Professor Wood explains.
The trial involves a combined resistance exercise program and diet intervention for adults 65 years and older, which is conducted over a 16 week period. The resistance exercise program has been designed by HMRI researcher and physiotherapist Penny Chan, who assesses anyone who starts the program.
“Older people often like exercises such as walking, but they don’t realise how important resistance exercises are for building strength,” says Isobel. “With our physiotherapists involved at every stage our participants learn to feel safe lifting weights, something we hope they continue after they finish the trial.”
The exercises target the arms, shoulders, back and legs. These are crucial muscle groups that help with preventing falls and help participants continue to do their regular daily activies.
The study is looking for adults 65 years and older with limited or no strength training experience.
“Given the recent lockdowns we have experienced from COVID-19, I think it’s important to give people the confidence to keep healthy and active at home,” says Isobel.
“Our program is home-based, with once a month upgrades from the physiotherapists,” Isobel says.
“We hope this will allow our participants to develop habits that will help them long after the program is completed. We are now excited to be able to extend the program and assess participants 12 months after they finish with us to see how they have gone after the 16 week trial has ended.”
STRONG is open to non-smokers, 65 years and over.
CASE STUDY: Pat Mears, 82.
Pat Mears has a posture and sprightliness that would be the envy of people 30+ years her junior. The Grandmother of five and Great-Grandmother of 11 has dedicated her life to caring for children, her own and her grandchildren. Pat’s a real people person.
As a babysitter to her grandkids and volunteer at the John Hunter Hospital (currently on hiatus due to COVID-19) Pat has always kept herself busy, so when the opportunity to volunteer as a research participant at HMRI came up, of course Pat signed up.
“I’ve done a few studies over the years,” says Pat. “But it wasn’t until I signed up for the STRONG study that I really found something I loved.”
Now, Pat doesn’t look like your average weightlifter, she’s delicate and elegant. However, she can work a five kilo weight like nothing you’ve ever seen. “I would never have lifted weights unless I did this study,” Pat says. “But I’ve really surprised myself by how strong I’ve become.”
Pat completed the program 18 months ago, but still does her resistance training two to three times a week, “I can’t help it, I’ve just got to get up and do it!” Pat says with a smile.
Pat’s fit and agile thanks to her grand kids and great grandkids, “They’ll say to me, ‘come play basketball’ or ‘come for a walk’ and of course I’ll go” says the 82-year-old. She has no trouble in getting up and down when playing with the kids, and says she’s noticed a real difference in her arm and shoulder strength since training with weights.
Pat has developed a lovely relationship with researcher Isobel Stoodley, who first spoke to Pat back in 2018. “When she first asked me to join the study, I thought she wanted me to come to HMRI from Maitland every day!” Pat says with a laugh. “I couldn’t be away from the kids for that long. But when I found out it was only once a month, I signed up.”
And she’s never regretted it. Pat feels stronger physically and mentally. “I just know that I can do it,” she says.
All the grandkids go to the gym and they’re just so proud of what Pat’s achieved.
Would she recommend the STRONG program to others? “Oh, absolutely!” she says. “I want to get my sister to sign up and do it now.”
* The STRONG trial is being conducted by Professor Lisa Wood, Dr Bronwyn Berthon, Dr Hayley Scott, Penelope Chan, Hannah Knox and Isobel Stoodley from the University of Newcastle and Hunter New England Health. HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.