The National Council on Aging lists falling as, “the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries for older Americans.” Between impaired vision and stifled mobility, it may seem as though falling is simply a rite of passage with age. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be.
Fitness and falls: an opposing force
Maintaining an active lifestyle can decrease an individual’s likelihood of experiencing a fall-related injury, according to the Mayo Clinic. Activities such as walking and dancing can improve all four aspects of physical health that play a role in fall prevention. These are strength, flexibility, balance and coordination.
Lower body strength is essentially what keeps us standing. This can be improved by focusing on exercises that target key areas, such as the legs and knees. Medicare.org explains that strength exercises, also referred to as resistance training, works with a person’s body weight to thwart age-related muscle loss. Strength training further keeps the bones strong, which will reduce the likelihood of a break in the event of an accident. These types of exercise include push-ups, pull-ups and squats. Seniors are encouraged to use resistance bands, a flexible material that can be used in almost limitless exercises. Silver Sneakers’ Total-Body Resistance Band Workout is an excellent starting point for those with little experience in the gym.
Exercises that encourage a full range of motion increase muscle elasticity and joint flexibility. Men’s Journal encourages stretching before and after exercise so muscles remain relaxed and less prone to damage from contractions and repetitive use. In addition to exercising, flexibility may be improved by staying hydrated and reducing stress and anxiety, both issues that are lessened through regular exercise. Exercises to try include shoulder and upper back stretches, neck rotation, hip side stretch and ankle circles. Eldergym goes into greater detail on each types of stretch here.
Balance exercises keep the body in an upright position while improving stability. Most seniors should consider balance training three to four days each week. Balance exercises recommended by Harvard University include heel lifts, standing hamstring curls and standing side leg lifts. Seniors can also practice balance by walking in a straight line and alternating standing on one foot for 10 to 12 seconds for a few minutes each day.
Improving the ability to synchronize movements between multiple parts of the body may also prevent falls. Coordination is necessary in everyday tasks including walking and climbing stairs. AZCentral explains that seniors can enjoy a better quality of living by incorporating coordination exercises into their fitness routine at least three times each week. One simple way to improve coordination is by circling the arms or legs in opposite directions.
Best exercises for seniors
The best types of exercise are the ones that are sustainable and don’t put the senior at risk of injury. The American College of Sports Medicine advocates group-based fitness programs for older people and specifically dance classes with body movements similar to Argentine tango. Step exercises are also a relatively safe option that may be completed while holding a wall or beam for added support.
Many older adults also report improved flexibility by practicing yoga and Pilates. Walking is another popular exercise as it combines fitness with the opportunity to socialize with like-minded adults; many malls and recreation centers offer specific times for seniors to walk outside of regular business hours.
Exercises such as this will be helpful for seniors in all walks of life, whether post-retirement or even post-cancer treatment. Studies show that cancer survivors are at an increased risk for falls post-cancer treatment due to the damage the chemo causes to the peripheral nerves, resulting in numbness and tingling in the hands and feet. Exercise can be very helpful in a situation like this. For example, a senior woman who has completed chemo for a gynecologic cancer can benefit from low-impact exercise like swimming or a stationary bike, as well as seated exercises such as toe tapping and seated leg pointers.
While exercise alone isn’t going to prevent all falls, it is a good start that will help seniors stay on the right track. Strength, balance, coordination and flexibility exercises don’t have to be intense to be effective. These healthy movements are enjoyable for people of all ages and abilities.