For obese people over the age of 64, the combination of aerobic exercise and weight training is better for improving physical functioning than either form of exercise alone, a recent study concludes.

Each type of exercise and a combination of the two produced 9% reductions in body weight over six months. But the combination provided the best mix of protection against muscle and bone loss with improved aerobic capacity.

Aerobic exercise and weight training, also known as resistance training, “have additive effects in improving your physical function,” chief author Dr. Dennis Villareal of the Baylor College of Medicine and the DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston. “Overall the patient feels it, and we were able to document that objectively.”

The findings in the New England Journal of Medicine have broad significance because 1/3 of older adults in the United States are obese, with all the health risks that come with being very overweight. Yet there is concern that weight loss might make them even more frail because bone and muscle might be lost as well.  The results suggest that fear is unfounded.

160 volunteers from New Mexico with a body-mass index of 30 or higher (putting them in the obese category), and no history of regular exercise were enrolled in the study. Of this group, 141 participants completed it. To assess physical performance, the team used a 37-point scale, where higher numbers indicated better physical performance.

The volunteers who participated in 60-minute aerobic or weight training sessions three times a week for six months showed increases in performance of 14%, improving by 3.9 points on that 37-point scale.  The volunteers who got bothaerobic and strength training in longer sessions that lasted 75 to 90 minutes showed an improvement of 5.5 points, or 21%.

Dr. Benjamin Levine, director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine in Dallas said the study, known as LITOE, “highlights a common misperception about obese individuals – although these patients were considered ‘frail,’ their overall cardiorespiratory capacity was actually remarkably normal, which is common in obese individuals who have to carry around a lot of weight in their daily lives.” He added, “I look forward to seeing the follow up on these patients to learn how they do over the long term, since six months is a short time and fitness/strength/vitality is a lifelong process.”