Saturday, May 25, 2013

Fall Prevention and Exercise

Active Lifestyle May Prevent Falls - Photo by Bill Branson
Approximately one-third of people over the age of 65 fall each year. Many people may not mention a fall to his or her physician, so that data could quite possibly be much higher. Falls are the biggest cause of death due to injury in older adults and also account for 2.3 million emergency department visits annually.

The potential for serious injuries resulting from falls is enormous and may include traumatic brain injuries and fractures. Many seniors who suffer from a fall may require a lengthy recovery in a long-term care facility. People who have fallen previously might hesitate to resume normal activities, which can lead to reduced physical fitness and an increased risk for falling again.

Along with the detrimental affects to one's personal life, falls also carry a sizable price tag. In 2010, direct costs related to falls in the United States increased to $30 billion.

The CDC recommends several fall prevention strategies, including:
  • Regular exercise
  • Medication reviews with one's physician
  • Eye exams annually
  • Reduction of tripping hazards in the home
This article focuses only on the first preventive strategy: exercise. Many exercise options are available, but some programs may be more suited to seniors than others. Before beginning or changing any exercise program, one should consult with one's healthcare provider to determine a safe individualized exercise program.

Senior Walking - Photo from Wikimedia Commons by National Cancer Institute
Two key areas that are associated with falls are gait and balance. One way to help maintain or improve one's gait is to participate in a daily walking program. Comfortable walking shoes with non-skid soles, appropriate attire and any necessary assistive devices (cane, walker, etc.) make walking one of the easiest exercise programs around.

Consider several factors when choosing a walking program, such as:
  • Condition of the walking surface
  • Lighting/visibility
  • Weather
  • Availability of emergency care
  • Distance from one's home/convenience of location
People might think that a walking program could quickly become stale, but one can easily mix up the routine to keep it interesting and fresh. For example:
  • Meet other people and walk together
  • Walk a dog – ensure that the dog walks well on a leash first
  • Change the route or the direction of the route
  • Try water walking
  • Carry something you wish to memorize (inspirational quotes, Bible verses, famous people, etc.)
  • Listen to music – ensure that you can also hear warning noises
  • Try a treadmill, indoor track, outdoor track, mall, walking trail, etc.
You might also vary the way in which you walk by:
  • Lengthen/shorten the stride
  • Lifting the knees
  • Alter one's speed
  • Going up/down steps and/or hills
  • Trying various appropriate settings on the treadmill
Many seniors find balance exercises to be challenging, but people might discover that flexibility, strength, and balance improve when they regularly exercise. Programs for older adults often specifically target muscles that help with balance and might include:
  • Tai Chi
  • Chair Yoga
  • Iyengar Yoga
  • Muscular Strength/Toning/Range of Movement
  • Water Fitness
  • Equine Programs
Balance Exercises May Prevent Falls - Photo by Stougard
Exercises designed to help with balance are often slower than typical aerobics-style classes. Classes designed for seniors are typically led by trained instructors who may offer a variety of options and modifications for a variety of movements in class. I have had quite a few participants in my exercise classes mention that they had started to fall but were able to avoid a serious injury, and they attributed that success to regularly attending exercise classes. A few participants in my classes have fallen at home, and many of them have recuperated much quicker than expected.

Those who are afraid they might fall while focusing on balance exercises might wish to stand near a wall or sturdy chair. However, it can be tempting to use the wall or chair more than needed. I encourage participants to use their fingertips on the chair or wall unless they truly need more support. Another great option for those who feel unsteady is to try water exercises. Those who cannot stand can strengthen many muscles associated with balance in a seated or lying position.

Devoting time each day to focus on one's physical health can prove to be a great investment that may improve or maintain one's functional abilities and quality of life. Many people say that hindsight is 20/20, but I like to think of foresight through regular exercise as 20/10!

Related articles:
Find more of Katrena's articles at the Fit Tips 4 Life site map.

References:

AARP June 13, 2008 article Avoid a Bad Fall by Exercising to Improve Your Balance by Cathie Gandel.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention article Falls Among Older Adults: An Overview last updated September 20, 2012.

Mayo Clinic article Fall Prevention: 6 Tips to Prevent Falls last updated July 10, 2010.

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