Written By: Molly Kavanaugh
For older adults, the statistics are alarming.
One in three Americans 65 and older falls every year.
Falls are the leading cause of fatal injuries for older adults.
Every 13 seconds, an older adult is seen in an emergency department for a fall-related injury.
The good news? Most falls can be prevented, according to the National Council on Aging, which is promoting “6 steps to Prevent a Fall” in conjunction with Falls Prevention Awareness Day on September 23.
Finding a good balance and exercise program is key.
“Practice makes perfect,” often said in reference to acquired skills or athletic performances, can also apply to improving balance. While it might not seem like the most necessary of fitness skills, strong balance increases stability and helps prevent potentially dangerous falls.
The first step is to talk with your doctor and schedule a balance assessment. He or she might have recommendations for physical therapy or a specific exercise program, but there are also several simple exercises you can do in the comfort of your own home. As with any new exercise program, check with your doctor first and honor your body’s limitations.
5 Exercises to Improve Your Balance
Tai chi: This low-impact ancient Chinese tradition can be a great stress reducer while also improving your balance. Nicknamed “meditation in motion,” tai chi involves gentle movements and stretches that flow together to keep your body constantly moving while maintaining a slow rhythm and focused breathing. Look to see if tai chi classes are offered in your area, or look on YouTube for free workouts.
Weight shifts: This is an easy balance exercise you can do while waiting in line or cooking dinner. Start with your legs spread hip width apart and your weight equally distributed on each side. Then, slowly shift your weight to be heavier on one side, then the other. As you get more comfortable, lift one foot off the floor and see how long you can comfortably hold that position. For extra security, try this exercise while standing near a chair or countertop you can grab.
Invisible balance beam: Hold your arms out from your sides and attempt to walk on an imaginary narrow surface, like a balance beam. Move your feet heel-to-toe for several steps while looking directly in front of you. Do your best to focus on moving forward and not looking down at your feet to keep yourself steady.
Unstable surface: Use a pillow, air mattress, or—if you’re feeling really ambitious—bosu ball, to practice weight shifts on an unstable surface. Make sure you have a spotter to lend a helping hand.
Eyes closed: Try any of the above exercises with your eyes closed for an additional challenge. Taking away your vision makes maintaining your balance much more difficult, so don’t try this method without a spotter.
Other Preventative Measures
Older adults should also ask their doctor or pharmacist to review both prescription and over-the-counter medications to identify side effects that may cause dizziness or drowsiness.
An annual eye examination is also recommended. Ask about getting a pair of glasses with single vision distance lenses for such activities as walking outside.
To reduce the risk of hip fractures, which afflict about 250,000 older adults annually, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends: adequate calcium and vitamin D—from food and/or from supplements; weight bearing exercises; and screening and, if needed, treatment for osteoporosis.
The Truth about Falls
The National Council on Aging has come up with 10 myths about falling. Here are the first five:
Myth 1: Falling happens to other people, not to me.
Reality: Many people think, “It won’t happen to me.” But the truth is that 1 in 3 older adults—about 12 million—fall every year in the U.S.
Myth 2: Falling is something normal that happens as you get older.
Reality: Falling is not a normal part of aging. Strength and balance exercises, managing your medications, having your vision checked and making your living environment safer are all steps you can take to prevent a fall.
Myth 3: If I limit my activity, I won’t fall.
Reality: Some people believe that the best way to prevent falls is to stay at home and limit activity. Not true. Performing physical activities will actually help you stay independent, as your strength and range of motion benefit from remaining active. Social activities are also good for your overall health.
Myth 4: As long as I stay at home, I can avoid falling.
Reality: Over half of all falls take place at home. Inspect your home for fall risks. Fix simple but serious hazards such as clutter, throw rugs, and poor lighting. Make simple home modifications, such as adding grab bars in the bathroom, a second handrail on stairs, and non-slip paint on outdoor steps.
Myth 5: Muscle strength and flexibility can’t be regained.
Reality: While we do lose muscle as we age, exercise can partially restore strength and flexibility. It’s never too late to start an exercise program. Even if you’ve been a “couch potato” your whole life, becoming active now will benefit you in many ways—including protection from falls.
Check out this short video from Kendal at Oberlin’s therapy team, about Balance and Fall Prevention.
Written By: Molly Kavanagh