Fitness First: Fall Prevention

Krista Howell
By Krista Howell March 15, 2013 12:00

Krista Howell

“When did you stop using a ladder or stepstool?”

When I asked the seniors in one of my exercise classes this question, they all laughed. I was surprised by how many are still using ladders and stepstools well into their 70s and 80s.

One man said, “I quit going on my roof when my doctor suggested it.” He was 89 at the time.

“My wife won’t let me,” replied another, “so I wait until she leaves.”

They get points for honesty (at least with me) if not for awareness of the risks involved.

It’s not a matter of if you’re going to fall, but when. One in three adults over 65 will fall this year, research shows. Half will be treated for a fracture or concussion. Women are twice as likely as men to break bones during a fall.

Falls are the leading cause of injury death among older adults. They account for about 95 percent of hip fractures, and even if non-fatal can be a factor in early death.

As we age, we lose muscle mass, which leaves us vulnerable to falling. To improve balance and agility, we need to strengthen the large muscles of our legs (quadriceps and hamstrings), our core area (back and abdominals), and upper body muscles (biceps, triceps and deltoids).

Even if you’re uninjured in a fall, you may find it hard to get off the floor, which can be particularly frightening if you live alone. Fear of falling thus can start a dangerous cycle. You may reduce activity to avoid falling, but lack of exercise weakens your muscles and increases your risk of falling.

The key is prevention. This begins with a regular exercise routine that includes walking, balance exercises and strength conditioning. Together these will significantly reduce your risk of falling and leave you more confident about engaging in more activities.

Start with the fall-prevention program outlined below. Other exercise programs that can be very beneficial, and are safe for beginners, include tai chi, yoga and water aerobics.

Fall-Prevention Program

Aerobic activities

Make exercises that improve muscle tone and cardio-respiratory endurance your top priority – walking, swimming, stationary biking, etc. Make sure they boost your heart rate for 30 minutes or more, three to five times a week. Walking is the easiest and can do wonders for your health and balance. Step out on school tracks, state park trails or shopping centers. If your balance is impaired, try walking with trekking poles. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes with soles that don’t catch on surfaces.

Balance builders

Always hold onto a surface (a countertop, for example) that places you in correct posture alignment. Set up a routine with these exercises:

  • Single-leg stand: Stand on one foot and hold for 20 seconds; repeat five times on each leg. If you feel off balance, hold on to the counter and practice until you can do them with no hands.
  • Heel-to-toe walk: Walk slowly, placing one foot down, heel first, in front of the other, moving four steps forward and four steps backward; repeat five times.
  • Standing attention: Stand with legs together, ankles and knees touching, arms by your side, then close your eyes and hold the position for 20 seconds; repeat five times.

Muscle strengthening

These simple exercises will strengthen primary muscle groups:

  • Sit-stand: Using your body but not your arms, rise from a sitting to a standing position. Or, stand with your back to a wall, slide down a short distance, then back up.
  • Squat: With your feet hip-width apart, bend at the knees as if you’re going to sit, and repeat 20 times. Add dumbbells for more resistance.
  • Wall or counter push-up: Stand with the feet hip-width apart and far enough from the wall to place palms flat against it.  Extend your arms at chest height and shoulder-width apart. Start with 10 repetitions. Safe for beginners.

Just remember that exercising more, not less, is the best way to build confidence and prevent falls.

And think twice before climbing up on those ladders or stepstools.

Exercise physiologist Krista Howell works with cardiac rehab patients and teaches senior fitness.

 © 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Krista Howell
By Krista Howell March 15, 2013 12:00
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