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According to the National Council on Aging, 1 in 4 Americans aged 65+ falls every year. Falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries for most older Americans, but falling does not have to be an inevitable part of aging. If you know an older adult who is starting to lose his or her balance, the time to act is now.

One of the most important things older adults can do to remain independent and prevent falls is to maintain (or gain) leg strength. Experts used to think that older adults could not gain muscle, but current research shows exercise can help restore strength and flexibility at any age. To help prevent falls, it was common to suggest reaching for a chair. Of course, reaching for a stationary object when safety is an issue is smart. However, we now know that continually relying on the arms to compensate for the legs can actually increase the risk of falls because the legs will become even weaker. To prevent falls, it is important to keep the legs strong.

Leg strength for older adults can be assessed using the chair test. See how many times they can get out of a chair in 30 seconds without using their hands. Our minimum goal is 8. If your loved one cannot meet that goal, enlist the help of an expert who can prescribe exercises that will help. Another area to focus on is balance. Most older adults do not like to work on balance, but improved balance leads to an increased sense of confidence and prevents falls. Start by standing close to a counter. Place both hands on the counter and try raising one leg. When that becomes doable, try raising one leg with two fingers from each hand on the counter. Then try one finger on each hand with a leg raise. Finally, work your way up to using only one hand while raising one leg. Take it slowly. Strength does not fade away overnight and it will not come back overnight either. Persistence will pay off.

For additional information on exercise for older adults, the CDC published Growing Stronger, a comprehensive book on strength training for older adults. It includes assessments, motivational tips, and detailed information on how older adults can exercise safely.