By Dr. Mercola
Falls are the leading cause of both fatal and non-fatal injuries among older adults, and it’s estimated that one out of three adults aged 65 or older will fall each year.1
In up to 30 percent of falls, people will suffer from hip fractures, lacerations or head traumas (falls are actually the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries and also cause more than 95 percent of hip fractures). Such injuries can make it difficult to live independently and may increase your risk of premature death.
Those who fall can also develop an intense fear of falling again, which leads them to limit their activities and in turn increases their risk of falling even more. This is clearly a major public health issue, with 2.3 million non-fatal fall injuries reported among older adults in 2010, along with 21,700 deaths.2
Exercise Helps Reduce Falls and Fall-Related Injuries
Preventing falls is actually one of the primary reasons why exercise remains so important as you get older, as physical activity is known to reduce your chances of falling significantly. Importantly, new research also shows that if you do end up falling, regular exercisers are less likely to be injured as a result.
Older adults who took part in an exercise program were 37 percent less likely to be injured during a fall compared to non-exercisers, the study found.3
This included a 61 percent lower risk of having a fall-induced broken bone and 43 percent lower risk of sustaining a fall-related injury serious enough to require admission to a hospital.
The exercises included an emphasis on balance training along with strength and functional training and even Tai Chi.
It’s likely that the regular exercisers were not only better able to respond physically to a fall but may also have been quicker mentally, allowing them to perhaps reach out and grab a railing for support and thereby suffer less injury.
Balance and Functional Training Exercises Are Essential as You Age
Exercises to improve balance and strength are not optional as you get older, they should really be viewed as a necessity -- like eating and sleeping -- as they can quite literally save your life.
As you get older, your muscle and bone mass decrease and the senses that guide your balance -- vision, touch, proprioception -- may all start to deteriorate, and this can make you unsteady on your feet.
By taking the time to do balance, strength and other exercises on a regular basis, you can keep your sense of balance strong, and even restore what's already been lost.
Separate research has shown, for instance, that eight weeks of balance training reduced slips and improved the likelihood of recovery from slips among the elderly.4 Other research, which noted that "altered balance is the greatest collaborator towards falls in the elderly," found balance training is effective in improving functional and static balance, mobility and falling frequency in elderly women with osteoporosis.5
The ability to balance on one leg is also an important predictor of injury-causing falls,6 so if you know that you'd be shaky if you tried to stand on one foot, you're at an increased risk of being hurt in a fall and should start appropriate exercises immediately.
What Are the Best Balance Training Exercises?
There are many options to choose from. Among the best types of exercise to increase steadiness on your feet, try:
Every muscle that directly connects to your pelvis should be considered a piece of your core. Your athletic ability, flexibility, balance and strength are all dependent on powerful hips. To greatly improve your core strength, Dr. Eric Goodman recommends strengthening the following muscles using the Foundation Training Program:
- Glutes: These are the powerhouses of your body. They do not work alone.
- Adductors (Inner thigh muscles) are your built in traction system. When the adductor group of muscles remains strong you have increased in hip stability, stronger arches in the feet, and a pelvic brace using a couple of the strongest muscles in your body.
- Your deep lower back muscles facilitate the proper integration of the Posterior Chain of Muscles. Simply put, a weak lower back changes every aspect of your movement patterns for the worse.
- Your abdomen and hip flexors: Think of the front of your body as a window that shows what is happening at the spine and pelvis. If the front is always too tight, the back is not working properly.
- The Transverse Abdominal muscle: A built in bracing system. When the transverse abdominus is tightened against the other muscles among this core group, the entire system becomes stronger.
Whole Body Vibration (WBV)
For seniors who have a hard time performing aerobic exercise, using a Whole Body Vibration platform (such as The Power Plate) can help them improve performance, allowing them to become stronger, faster and more agile, according to recent research.7 WBV stimulation affects your entire body musculature, as well as your internal organs and glands.
Your muscle spindles fire secondary to the mechanical stimulation produced by the vibrating plate, and this rapid firing of the muscle spindle causes a neuromuscular response that leads to positive physiological changes in your brain as well as your entire body.
Yoga and Other Forms of Flexibility and Balance Training
Yoga is particularly useful for promoting flexibility and core muscles, and has been proven beneficial if you suffer with back pain. Yoga is also an excellent choice for helping you improve and maintain your balance, especially if you include one-legged standing poses (if you need to use a chair or wall for support, that’s okay). And considering that improved balance directly reduces your risk of falling, yoga’s potential to reduce fall-related injuries cannot be understated.
Exercise Benefits from Your Muscles to Your Memory
I’ve often said that you’re virtually never too old to exercise, and this advice continues to be scientifically proven. The benefits of starting an exercise program are immense, even if you do so late in life – and they extend far beyond preventing falls and their related injuries. For instance, one study of 40 competitive runners, cyclists and swimmers, ranging in age from 40 to 81, found no evidence of muscle deterioration -- the athletes in their 70s and 80s had almost as much thigh muscle mass as the athletes in their 40s.8 Other research has shown:
- Even a small amount of exercise may protect the elderly from long-term memory loss and even help reverse some of the effects of aging.9
- Women between the ages of 75 and 85, all of whom had reduced bone mass or full-blown osteoporosis, were able to lower their fall risk with strength training and agility activities.10
- Moderate exercise among those aged 55-75 may cut the risk of developing metabolic syndrome, which increases heart disease and diabetes risk.11
- Among those who started exercising at age 50 and continued for 10 years, the rate of premature death declined dramatically, similar to giving up smoking and mirroring the level seen among people who had been working out their entire lives.12
Your Workout Should Be Challenging, Even if You’re Elderly
If you're elderly, it's advisable to get a workout buddy -- a personal trainer or someone who is experienced -- to help guide you through your routine. Start off slowly and gradually increase your intensity as you grow stronger, avoiding activities that aggravate or cause pain. Just keep in mind that while you need to use caution, you do need to exercise at a level that is challenging to your body. Many make the mistake of exercising with not enough intensity, and this will result in many of your benefits being forfeited. Ideally, your fitness program should be comprehensive, providing the necessary balance-training activities for stability while also improving your strength, flexibility, cardiovascular fitness and fat-burning capabilities.
What Else Should Your Exercise Program Entail?
In addition to the balance training activities described above, try:
High-Intensity Interval-Type Training (HIIT) Like Peak Fitness
Once you hit the age of 30, you enter what's called "somatopause," at which point your levels of human growth hormone (HGH) begin to drop off quite dramatically. This decline of HGH is part of what drives your aging process, so maintaining your HGH levels gets increasingly important with age. HIIT boosts your body's natural production of HGH, which will help address the muscle loss and atrophy that typically occurs with aging.
The higher your levels of HGH, the healthier, stronger and more “youthful” you will be. While HIIT may seem too advanced for the elderly, don't let the intensity dissuade you! Rest assured you can perform HIIT at ANY age. The only difference is that the older you are the lower your maximum heart rate will be, and the more gradually you will want to increase your repetitions. I’ve discussed and demonstrated high-intensity interval training exercises on a number of occasions in previous articles, so for detailed instructions and demonstrations, please see the video below.
Weight-bearing exercise, like resistance or strength training, can go a long way to prevent loss of bone quality and density, and can help reverse damage already done. Interestingly enough, strength training also has brain-boosting side effects, which can help you avoid age-related dementia. You can use either gym equipment, free weights or even your own body weight.
Whichever one you choose, I recommend having a trainer take you through each exercise to make sure you have the proper form performing the exercise, to avoid injury.
Standing up often, walking and even doing simple everyday movements like bending over to pick up your newspaper are equally, and possibly more, important than scheduled exercise sessions. The more you stay active during the day with non-exercise activity, the better. If this is a challenge for you, try spending more time doing hobbies, like gardening or volunteering.
If My Mom Could Do It, So Can You!
My mom didn't start working out until she was 74 and now, at the age of 78, she has gained significant improvements in strength, range of motion, balance, bone density and mental clarity. After a bit of apprehension at first, she now, as you can see on the video below, loves her workouts and, I'm hoping, will inspire you to get active as well, no matter what your age.