Building strength, balance and cognitive function can keep nasty slips at bay.
Falls happen, no matter your age. But the truth is, the higher your age, the more susceptible you are to falling. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pegged falling the leading cause of injury and death among adults age 65 and older.
But don’t think that having a forest of candles on your birthday cake automatically means you’re doomed to fall. If there’s one thing health professionals know for sure, it’s that it’s never too late to start protecting yourself against the pesky, age-related changes that make you more susceptible to tumbles than your teenage grandkids, says physical therapist Michael Silverman, director of rehabilitation and wellness at Northern Westchester Hospital in New York.
You know, changes like declines in muscle mass. According to one Age and Ageing review, 1 in 3 adults age 60 and older suffer from severe muscle loss, called sarcopenia. You know that shuffle, shuffle, shuffle sound many older adults make when they walk? That’s the sound of sarcopenia.
"Sarcopenia drastically affects the strength of the legs, hips, and core, all of which are critical to mobility and maintaining independence," Silverman says. "The loss of muscle mass and strength in the arms can make it difficult to catch yourself if you do trip. And since the muscles of the body act as a sort of protection for the bones, if you fall because of inadequate muscle mass, you may be more likely to suffer a bone break."
Meanwhile, your proprioception – or your ability to sense where your body is relative to other things and control your body’s positioning – can naturally decline through the decades, explains Chris Ochner, director of research for the Hospital Corporation of America. As a result, balance and stability suffer.
Common health conditions such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes can also impact your risk of falling by contributing to nerve damage in the legs and feet. And, when your legs and feet go numb, staying upright is next to impossible, Silverman says.
Yeah, that’s a lot of factors teaming up to try to take you down. And while a diet rich in vitamin D, calcium and protein can boost fall prevention, as can staying mentally engaged with brain games, exercise is key in preventing fall-related hazards, too. Simply adding the right exercises to your regular routine can make an enormous impact on your safety by strengthening the body, boosting blood flow to the lower extremities, improving neurological function and even helping to enhance your body’s proprioceptive powers, Silverman says.
In fact, a 2016 comprehensive British Journal of Sports Medicine meta-analysis found that exercise alone reduces the risk of falls in older adults by an average of 21 percent. What's more, working out for more than three hours per week was linked to a 39 percent reduction in falls. Pretty impressive, right? "It's best to focus on your body's largest, most powerful muscle groups, such as your glutes, quads and triceps, while also performing single-leg and balancing exercises," Ochner says.
Not sure where to start? Here are six exercises that can help keep you strong and stable through the years:
1. Alternating Lunges
Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. Place a sturdy chair to one side to hold for balance. (As you gain strength, you can perform this exercise without holding onto a chair.) Keeping your back straight, step forward with one foot. Bend your front knee until your back knee is almost touching the ground. Make sure your front knee doesn’t extend past your front toes. Then, push through your front foot to return to standing. Repeat with the opposite leg. Start with five reps per leg before increasing to 10 reps per leg. Once 10 reps feel easy, add 2kg weights.
2. Single-Leg Stands
Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. If needed, hold onto the wall or a sturdy piece of furniture for balance. (As you progress at this exercise, you can perform it without holding onto anything.) From here, lift one foot an inch off of the floor while keeping your torso straight and without leaning toward your planted foot. Hold for 10 to 15 seconds, then slowly return it to the floor. Repeat on the opposite leg. Perform five repetitions on each leg.
Begin seated in a chair with arms. Then, brace yourself on the arms and push your butt up in the air using as little help from your lower body as possible. Once you’ve lifted your body out of the chair, slowly lower yourself back into a seated position. Perform 10 repetitions.
4. Triceps Kickbacks
Begin standing to one side of a sturdy chair or bench, holding a 1kg weight down by your opposite side in one hand. With your back straight, hinge forward at the waist to place your free hand on the chair or bench. Then, bend your opposite arm at the waist. Keeping your elbow planted at your waist, extend only your forearm behind you. Pull the weight back to your waist. Perform 10 repetitions per arm, and work your way up to a 2kg weight.
5. Chair Leg Raises
Begin seated in a sturdy chair. Then, holding on to the bottom of the chair with both hands, extend one leg straight out and bring your knee in toward your chest without moving your upper body to meet it. Extend your leg back out and lower your foot to the ground. Repeat with the opposite side. Start with five reps per leg, and work up to 10. Eventually, you’ll want to be able to extend both legs at the same time.
6. Slow Toe Touches
Stand tall with feet together. Then, slowly roll your upper body down to reach your fingers toward your toes, only going as far as your current level of flexibility allows. Try to keep your legs straight the entire time. Slowly roll back up to stand. Perform 10 repetitions.