MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Alexander Voukelatos BSc, BA, MA(psych), PhD
Healthy Populations Program Manager
Sydney Local Health District and Conjoint Lecturer
School of Public Health and Community Medicine
University of NSW
Medical Research: What is the background for this study?
Response:Falls in older people has been a significant public health issue in high income countries for several decades now. We know that if current trends continue, given that more people will be living for longer, falls will be an even bigger issue in the not too distant. Falls are not an inevitable part of ageing, and in fact many falls can be prevented relatively simply by increasing physical activity.
For over 15 years we’ve known that physical activity is one of the most effective ways of reducing the risk of falls in older people living in the community; since the publication of the first Cochrane review on Interventions for preventing falls in the elderly by Gillespie and colleagues.  I know that Health Departments here, in Australia, and in New Zealand – as I suspect has been the case in many high income countries – have invested a lot of resources over the past few decades into reducing falls-related hospital admissions in older people. Much of this going into promoting and funding physical activity programs for older people.
However, this investment has had very little if any impact on falls-related hospital admissions in older people. There may be several reasons we haven’t seen any difference in these rates. In New South Wales – Australia’s most populous state – we know that physical activity rates amongst older people have actually risen by about 15% between 1998 and 2005, the most popular activity by far being walking, yet we haven’t see any corresponding change in falls-related hospitalization rates. Perhaps there has not been enough time for these programs to have made an impact on hospitalization rates, or perhaps the change in physical activity levels is insufficient to make an impact on these rates.
Another possibility could be that while we’ve seen an increase in physical activity in older people perhaps its not the kind of physical activity that results in a reduction in falls. Sherrington and colleagues  reviewed effective physical activity interventions for preventing falls in older people and found they had several elements in common: a) the physical activity included balance challenging exercise i.e. exercises taking participants to the limits of their stability, b) at least 50 hours of accumulated activity was needed, and c) no walking was included in the exercises. So we know not all types of physical activity will be equally effective in reducing the risk of falling. There is some disagreement in the literature about walking.
There are several studies that included walking as part of the intervention and showed a reduction in falls in older people. Other studies supported the conclusions made by Sherrington that walking is not associated with a reduction in falls. All of these studies included walking as a component of an intervention which makes it difficult to figure out what effect walking specifically has on falls rates.
This is were our study comes in. We wanted to investigate the effectiveness of a walking program on falls in older people, specifically sedentary older people, who we presumed would get the most benefit from becoming more physically active.
We developed a walking program specifically for sedentary older people, that they could do themselves in their own time, at their preferred locale. The aim of the program was to get participants walking for at least 150 minutes per week at a brisk pace. The program comprised of four parts: the first part focused on increasing the frequency of walks, the second part focused on getting participants to walk for at least 150 minutes per week, followed by walking for 150 minutes at a brisk pace, while the final part focused on supporting participants in maintaining their walking levels and incorporating walking as part of their daily activities.