The research team studied 162 hospitalized patients over age 65 who each had a step activity monitor attached to one of their ankles. The small electronic device counted every step the patients took, explained the researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston.
The monitors showed that even short walks around the hospital unit were beneficial.
"Using these monitors, we were able to see a correlation between even relatively small amounts of increased mobility and shorter lengths of stay in the hospital. We still found this effect after we used a statistical model to adjust for the differing severities of the patients' illnesses," lead author and assistant professor Steve Fisher said in a UTMB news release.
The study was published in a recent issue of the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.
Patients with orthopedic or neurological conditions are encouraged to get back on their feet as soon as possible, but no such "standard of care" currently exists for elderly hospital patients with acute conditions, the researchers noted.
The authors pointed out that their study could be a first step toward that goal and may also lead to other improvements in the care of elderly hospital patients.
"Mobility is a key measure in older people's independence and quality of life generally, and this study suggests that's also true in the hospital setting," Fisher said.
"When we hospitalize elderly people, we set up a paradoxical situation," he explained. "You can have a positive outcome of the acute problem that brought them there, but still have negative consequences as a result of extended immobility."
The AGS Foundation for Health in Aging has more about older adults and hospitalization.