From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Physical Capacity Drops Among Older Workers

Physical capacity decreases substantially as workers age regardless of gender, indicates a new study. Both male and female participants in the study who were first tested in their early 50s and again in their late 60s, showed a marked reduction of several physical capacity measurements, particularly muscle strength and flexibility.

From a pool of 6,257 municipal workers in Finland, 25 women and 20 men were evaluated four times over a 16 year period for weight, height, body mass index, thickness of skinfolds, spine flexibility, hand grip strength, trunk flexion strength, trunk extension strength and aerobic capacity.  The average age at initial testing was 51.6 years while the average age at the final testing was 67.3 years. 

Over the course of the evaluations, spine flexibility (spinal flexion) dropped 26.7 percent for females and 17.6 percent for males.  Isometric trunk flexion strength dipped 12.5 percent for females and 33.7 percent for males while isometric trunk extension strength fell by 21.8 percent for females and 33.5 percent in males.  Isometric hand grip strength decreased by 21.4 percent for males and 3.3 percent for females.

Participants who self-reported as being “physically active” (brisk exercise at least once a week for 15 to 20 minute period) did not demonstrate statistically better spinal flexibility, hand grip strength or truck flexion/extension strength; however, on average, the isometric truck flexion/extension strength was better among the “active” participants .Aerobic capacity showed over an 11 percent drop for both genders with the active group demonstrating a higher, but not statistically significant, aerobic capacity.

Overall, researchers determined that the average physical capacity of the participants decreased by approximately 20 percent during the study.  And, while isometric muscle strength and spinal flexibility showed the greatest losses, height was reported to have the least change.

Savinainen M, C Nygard, O Korhonen and J Ilmarinen. “Changes in Physical Capacity Among Middle-Aged Municipal Employees Over 16 Years.” Experimental Aging Research 30:1-22, 2004.

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2004-10-12.