Background: Population aging is one of the greatest socio-economic challenges of the 21st century, as aging is a well-known risk factor for the development of chronic diseases and functional disabilities. A sedentary life-style promotes the progression of chronic diseases and impaired mobility in older people. Therefore, physical activity is essential for healthy aging. The optimal exercise program for older persons, which covers fall prevention as well as endurance and strength, still remains unclear. Methods: We performed a longitudinal, randomized, controlled intervention study to investigate the combined effects of moderate mountain hiking and balneotherapy on gait, balance, body composition and quality of life on high-functioning people aged 65-85 years. The intervention group (n = 106) participated in a seven-day holiday with mountain hiking tours. In addition, balneotherapy was applied. The control group (n = 33) spent a typical seven-day cultural holiday with sightseeing. Medical examinations were performed before (day 0) and after the intervention week (day 7), after two months (day 60) and after half a year (day 180). Statistical analysis was done by fully nonparametric analysis of variance-type testing. Results: An improvement of static balance was observed in the intervention group (treatment effect p = 0.02). No significant changes were found in dynamic balance, measured as center of pressure, gait parameters and self-assessed balance confidence. Only for gait speed, a short-term effect was observed (treatment p = 0.03). The gait speed increased in the intervention group. Although quality of life improved significantly in both groups, a sustainable effect until day 60 is only visible in the intervention group (interaction effect for treatment and day-60 p = 0.02). Significant interaction effects of treatment and time were found for total body water (p = 0.04), appendicular muscle mass (p = 0.04) and fat free mass index (p = 0.03), all indicating an increase of these variables in the intervention group. Conclusions: A seven-day intervention with moderate mountain hiking in combination with balneotherapy is an effective training for highly functioning older persons, inducing short-term improvements in static balance and quality of life.
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