Senior citizens who participated in four movement-therapy sessions showed improved balance and gait, increased leg strength, and significantly decreased leg pain, according to a recent research study.

“Senior citizens benefit from movement therapy” was conducted by Kristen Hartshorn, Jesse Delage, Tiffany Field, Ph.D., and Loren Olds of the University of Miami School of Medicine. Field is the director of the university’s Touch Research Institute. The study was published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies.

Thirty-two subjects with an average age of 86 were recruited for the study from two retirement communities and randomly assigned to either a movement-therapy group or a wait-list control group.

The movement-therapy group attended four 50-minute sessions throughout a two-week time period. Each session began with a warm-up, during which subjects typically sat in a circle and focused on breathing; raised their arms and legs; and rolled their necks. Self-massage was also performed.

After the warm-up, participants engaged in large, whole-body movements, such as swaying, pushing, stamping, twisting, turning, stepping and swinging.

This was followed by resting and sharing, when participants took a break to notice any changes in themselves, such as increased heart rate or expanded respiration.

The last portion of the movement therapy was most intensive, as subjects were encouraged to fully explore the dynamics of a movement, such as the feeling of rocking or swaying. At times they worked in pairs, mirroring each other, or used props to take the movement further. Breathwork, progressive relaxation of the entire body, imagery and visualization were also used.

Range-of-motion data and self-reports were collected from subjects in both the movement-therapy and the control group on the first and last days of the study.

Overall body pain, back pain and leg pain were rated on visual analogue scales (VITAS) ranging from 0/no pain, to 10/worst possible pain. Leg strength was rated on a 10-point scale, from very weak to very strong.

The Tinetti balance and gait evaluation was used to measure subjects’ range of motion. Each item was rated from 0-2, and a higher total score was considered optimal. The balance evaluation included items such as sitting balance, arising, standing balance, turning 360 degrees and sitting down. The gait evaluation included items such as step length and height, step continuity, step symmetry and walking stance.

“Although there were trends in the reduction of back pain, only the leg pain significantly decreased over the course of the study,” state the study’s authors.

Results showed that those who participated in the movement therapy improved in their functional motion on the Tinetti scale, specifically in terms of gait. Leg strength increased, and leg pain was decreased significantly. The change in the means for overall pain and back pain were in a positive direction, but not significant.

“The combined effects of the movement therapy on leg strength, gait, and reduction of leg pain suggest that this may be an effective therapy for these problems in the elderly,” state the study’s authors. “The freer movements and lesser degree of structure and concentration required of the elderly make this a more enjoyable kind of movement therapy than the more frequently studied Tai Chi.”

Source: University of Miami School of Medicine. Authors: Kristen Hartshorn, Jesse Delage, Tiffany Field, Loren Olds. Originally published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, January 2002, pp. 55-58.