AMES, IA — Fueled by a recently awarded $1 million grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Iowa State University researchers and community partners will study new strategies to help reduce risks of falls in older adults.
The project will build on an evidence-based program called Walk with Ease, which was developed by the Arthritis Foundation and broadly endorsed by the CDC; participants are guided through the six-week program (using either in-person or online formats) to learn how to safely add physical activity into their day. Previous research has found older adults in the program experience modest to moderate improvements in pain, fatigue, stiffness, strength and balance.
The newly funded research project at ISU will be the first to directly evaluate the program’s potential for reducing the risk and incidence of falling, which is the leading cause of injuries among people ages 65 and older in the U.S.
Over the next three years, researchers with the ISU Translational Research Network will evaluate the effects of incorporating individualized, physical therapy exercises into the group version of Walk with Ease. They’ll also explore how different motivational approaches can help people follow through with prescribed exercises and engage in more physical activity.
The findings from the project, including a feasibility study for scaling up the program, could help inform training materials and lead to a replicable model for communities across Iowa and in other states.
“We're trying to determine the most effective approach prior to broader dissemination of the group-based Walk with Ease program,” said Greg Welk, Barbara E. Forker Professor in Kinesiology and coordinator of the overall project.
The research project will be conducted in collaboration with McFarland Clinic and Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames. Physical therapists will evaluate participants for fall risk and work with Welk’s team to incorporate personalized exercises into the warmups and cool downs during the group sessions.
“Individuals trying to follow home exercise prescriptions may not remember how to do recommended exercises or may not have the motivation to do them regularly. The project will build in accountability, support and motivation to help address these needs,” said Welk.
Building on pilot studies and partnerships
Since 2019, Welk’s team has been piloting enhanced versions of Walk with Ease — including an online format that is delivered statewide using trained, ISU student health coaches to provide support over the phone and an in-person version that includes group walking.
Last winter, Mary Greeley started screening patients at high risk for fall injuries and referring them to the ISU Walk with Ease program.
“Falls are the number one trauma here in the emergency room. That is why we felt it so important to join forces with Greg Welk’s team to help out the Ames community and work to decrease the number of falls we are seeing,” said RN Tricia Colman, trauma program manager at Mary Greeley.
Colman pointed to data from the last year showing the emergency department received more than 620 trauma patients who were injured from falls compared to roughly 170 from accidents involving vehicles or bicycles. She added the majority of people coming to the emergency department for fall-related injuries are aged 60 or older.
Referrals for Walk with Ease and the three-year project will continue to be processed by CHPcommunity HUB, a statewide nonprofit organization that works within communities to disseminate evidence-based programs to promote healthier people, environments and systems.
The research team will also continue to partner with Ames Parks and Recreation Community Center and Mary Greeley’s Lifetime Fitness Center in Story City. Both promote the program and provide space for the ISU student health coaches who lead the in-person group version of Walk with Ease.
“Many older adults who want to begin an exercise program have no idea where and how to get started. Starting a walking program with guidance from the Walk with Ease staff along with group stretching before and after the walking can give them the confidence to get started and feel confident as they get stronger,” said Nancy Shaw, public wellness manager for the City of Ames Parks and Recreation Department.
Shaw added many of the participants appreciate the social aspect of Walk with Ease, along with the guidance from the ISU faculty and student health coaches. Welk pointed out the students also receive valuable experiential learning opportunities helping older adults.
Participants can enroll in either the in-person and virtual versions of the program on a rolling basis. The three-year study focused on the in-person program is open to adults over the age of 65 who are deemed safe to participate in a walking program by their physician.
More information about the program and the enrollment process is available at www.walkwitheaseisu.org.