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Reducing falls for older adults: How physical activity keeps you balanced

The third blog post in the series, Reducing Falls For Older Adults, offers recommendations for remaining physically active to reduce the risk of falling.

Ann, 73, participates in daily online exercise classes offered by a local company. She expressed the benefits of physical activity eloquently.

"I really feel that with the work I've been doing, I am physically better prepared to prevent a fall," Ann said. "I am stronger and more able to recover if I slip or feel unbalanced." For Ann, regular physical activity has become a part of her daily routine and, as she put it, "changed my life."

Lack of physical activity and the resulting loss of muscle strength is a major reason older adults experience a decline in balance and physical strength, especially in the lower body.

Physical activity is the most effective way to reduce the risk of falling -- it really is "use it or lose it."

And, the best part? Being more active can be fun. There are many socially engaging, enjoyable and affordable ways to increase your physical movement, while also reaping the benefits of better heart health and fall prevention.

In this post, I will highlight the most effective forms of physical activity for reducing falls and improving your strength and balance:

Tai chi (also known as TaiJi)

What is it?

  • Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art practice that has become popular all over the world.
  • There are different styles; but in general, tai chi involves deep breathing and a series of slow, controlled movements that are practiced in a mindful and rhythmic ways.
  • For a demonstration, see a tai chi for beginners instructional video.

What equipment or resources are needed?

  • You can follow along with an online instructional videos or join a tai chi group in your community.
  • You can do it anywhere -- practicing tai chi requires no special equipment or attire. Just be sure to wear supportive footwear and comfortable clothing that allows you to move freely.

What are the benefits?

  • Research shows that tai chi specifically reduces older adults' risk of. falling.
  • Tai chi combines multiple fall-prevention benefits: It improves flexibility (range of motion); strength (the extent to which your muscles can overcome resistance); agility (the ability to change directions quickly and easily); and cardiovascular fitness (the capability of the heart, lungs, and blood to efficiently supply oxygen to your muscles). It can also improve your mood, increase your energy, and reduce stress, anxiety and depression.
  • No experience is required! Tai chi is a great form of physical activity for all levels, especially beginners.

Chair exercises

What is it?

  • Many exercises can be done while sitting in a chair.
  • This is ideal if you don't feel comfortable or able to participate in standing exercises.
  • Chair exercises include arm exercises with or without weights (such as seated bicep curls); core exercises (such as crunches that strengthen your abdominal, back and pelvic muscles); and leg exercises (such as sit-to-stand movements).
  • View a video demonstration of common chair exercises (with instructions).

What equipment or resources are needed?

  • All you need is an ordinary solid chair with four legs (make sure it doesn't have wheels or rollers).
  • Hand weights (if you don't have weights, you can use such household items as filled water bottles), and resistance bands (or use a towel or strap), depending on what type of exercises you want to do.

What are the benefits?

  • Exercising on a chair is a safe option if you prefer to be seated or be near a chair during strength training.
  • Chair exercising improves flexibility, range of motion, blood circulation and muscle strength, and it reduces stress and anxiety.

Stability ball exercises

What is it?

  • Stability balls (also called Swiss balls or exercise balls, which are made of a pliable plastic and filled with air) can be used for a wide variety of low-impact strengthening, balance, core and flexibility exercises. 
  • Stability ball exercises include arm raises, lifting one leg at a time while seated on the ball, and side bends or stretches.
  • View a video demonstration of stability ball exercises.

What equipment or resources are needed?

  • A stability ball (costs about $20).
  • A non-slippery surface, such as a mat or carpeted surface.
  • Hand weights (these are optional, and household substitute work).

What are the benefits?

  • It's a fun and stimulating way to improve your strength, especially in your core muscles. It also improves flexibility and balance. Stability exercises can help improve your posture and relieve your back pain.
  • The stability ball allows you to remain seated while still working muscles that will help you stay balanced.

More exercise recommendations

  • Other great activities include walking, gardening, yoga, swimming, Pilates and resistance band workouts.
  • If you feel bored, try listening to fun music or a podcast while you move.
  • Check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for more age- and ability-specific physical activities.

In addition to preventing falls, physical activity also has tremendous physical and emotional health benefits. Physical activity can help you socially engage with others, lose weight, practice mindfulness, prevent chronic diseases, like diabetes and heart disease, and achieve better health. 

Participate only in exercises that you feel stable and comfortable doing. If you feel at all unsteady on your feet, try seated chair exercises, which allow safe strength and balance training. 

This is the third blog post in the series, Reducing Falls For Older Adults. The goal of the series is to help older adults and their family members better understand how to reduce the risk and impact of falls. Patients referenced are composites, compiled from actual patient experiences.

Claire Jacobson is a master's degree student in Community Health and Prevention Research at Stanford studying chronic disease prevention and healthy aging. Stanford professor and primary care physician Randall Stafford, MD, PhD, studies strategies to improve chronic disease treatment, including increasing the role of patients in their health care.

Photo by Bru-nO

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