The old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is particularly true for falls. Seniors who engage in great exercises for fall prevention can decrease their risk of a devastating fall-induced injury. While there are paths forward from a fall-related injury, a hospital visit can lead to a significant road to recovery, as well as a hefty bill. Fortunately, the risks of a fall can be decreased by with exercise routines designed to build balance and strength.
According to physical therapist/Ph.D. Tiffany Shubert, exercising for fall prevention requires an educated approach. In her appearance on the Better Health While Aging podcast, Shubert noted that aging adults need exercises that emphasize strength and balance, rather than a general exercise program.
This means that by itself, walking does not markedly decrease the risk for a fall. In fact, Shubert provided a caution on this front, pointing out that if a frail senior who pushes a walk to the end of their endurance could fall during their exercise. That is not to say walking is bad – as part of the right program, it is good – but resistance and balance provide the foundation so that we can continue to walk.
Shubert recommends that seniors spend two to three hours per week on exercises for fall prevention. That may sound like a lot, but you don’t have to go to the gym to get your workout – this article will detail simple exercises that can help to prevent falls. You should consult with your doctor before beginning any exercise program, but these “exercises” are about mindful engagement in your basic movements, rather than any sort of high-intensity program.
Table of Contents
- Exercises for Fall Prevention #1: Chair Sits
- Exercises for Fall Prevention #2: Balance on One Leg
- Exercises for Fall Prevention #3: Backward Walking
- Exercises for Fall Prevention #4: Tai Chi
- Exercises for Fall Prevention #5: Five-Minute Home Workout
- Next Steps
Exercises for Fall Prevention #1: Chair Sits
If you are mindful about your mechanics as you sit, you can turn an everyday activity into a strengthening exercise.
Chair sits are great because they allow you to start slow. All you need is a chair with two arms – the arms are helpful if you need upper-body support to complete the movement in the early stages of this doing this work.
The chair sits are what they sound like. You will sit in a chair, then stand, but the devil is in the details. You do not want to “drop” into the seat, but lower yourself with deliberate control. On the way up, you want to create steady engagement through your leg muscles to lift rise, rather than pushing down with your hands to initiate your movement.
If you have balance issues, grip both arms of the chair as you sit and stand, but remember, you do not want to rely on that upper body engagement forever. Instead, use your hands for balance as you engage the strength in your lower half and build your balance. As your balance improves, you can complete the exercise with one hand for support.
At some point, you may progress to the point where you can complete the movements with your arms crossed on your chest. This isolates the lower body and increases the balance challenge.
Chair sits are wonderful because they meet your body where it is, and the only necessary equipment (the chair) is likely at hand. It is a simple exercise that engages the large muscles in your buttocks and thighs, critical areas to build up in exercises for fall prevention.
Exercises for Fall Prevention #2: Balance on One Leg
Balancing on one leg has an obvious connection to fall prevention; if you have the stability to support your body on a single leg, you are better equipped to avoid falls.
If you can already balance on one leg, keep at it, but if this is a challenge, we want to take it slow. After all, it makes no sense to engage in activities with a high risk of falling when that is the very outcome we are working to avoid.
Fortunately, you can work on your one-legged balance in a safe setting. By standing next to a counter, between a pair of chairs, or another stable surface to grip, you can stabilize yourself if your balance falters. With your hands in place for balance, you can lift one foot and balance on the other. After an appropriate amount of time, switch to the other leg. As you grow comfortable, you can lessen your engagement through your hands and rely on the single leg for balance.
The human body has a remarkable ability to respond to stimuli, even at an advanced age. An individual who cannot do a single full pushup can build up to it through repeated repititions with the knees down. Similarly, an individual who can’t balancing for two seconds can start with one second, or a part of a second. Someday, they can build to two seconds, then three.
Chair sits pair well with the one-legged balance exercise to address lower-body strength and balance. If you devote five minutes to these two exercises twice each day, you will get 70 minutes of the two to three hours per week that Dr. Shubert recommends.
Exercises for Fall Prevention #3: Backward Walking
The practice of backward walking to maintain balance has a long history in Eastern cultures. Now, its benefits are starting to come to the forefront in the West. Studies have shown that backward walking improves balance. This study included a control group that walked the same distance forward to validate the benefits of backward walking with modern-day science.
Backward walking may require some buildup, but like chair sits and one-legged balances, it allows for gradual gains. It is an adjustment, but once you are comfortable walking backward, you can amplify your walks by going backward for 10% of the distance.
Exercises for Fall Prevention #4: Tai Chi
Tai Chi requires more mobility to get started than some of our previous exercises. However, if you can walk, you can get started with this calming practice. Tai Chi provides benefits for balance along with the positive mental effects of “walking meditation.” This makes it a great exercise for fall prevention.
Tai Chi consists of steady, deliberate movements that include single-legged balances and some moderate leg squats. It is often done barefoot, which enhances strength and balance benefits.
Other exercise classes, such as Yoga or Barre, also provide benefits for balance. However, there is significant variation in the types of movements in any single one of these classes. This means that the movements may or may not directly address the strength and balance factors related to fall risk. Tai Chi is a bit more straightforward. You will still want to find the right teacher and community, but the majority of Tai Chi classes will feature movements that help decrease the risk of a fall.
Exercises for Fall Prevention #5: Five-Minute Home Workout
Exercises for fall prevention are an excellent starting point, but as you build your body, you may want to expand the scope of your goals. The stronger your body becomes, the further away you will be from the “risky zone” for falls.
A great way to start this process is with a five-minute home workout. This routine requires no weights or special equipment. You can do it in your kitchen while the coffee brews, or in the bathroom as the tub fills.
- Two-Legged Squats: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and toes turned out as needed. Lower yourself until your thighs are parallel to the ground, then rise back to standing.
- Pushups: If you are unable to do a standard pushup, start on your knees. If you can’t start on your knees, start standing with your hands against the wall (you can increase the resistance with a slight forward lean). Emphasize stability through the core as you work through the exercise.
- One-Legged Calf Raises. Stand on one foot and extend up through your calf until you are balanced on the ball of the foot, then lower. Complete one set, then switch legs and repeat.
- Dips: Dips will balance out pushups to ensure the upper body is not over-developed on one side. Dips can be done on a chair or any other stable surface. With your hands on the chair and feet on the ground, lower yourself as far as you can, keeping the torso stable, and press yourself back up.
- Repeat (optional)
You may have noticed that there are no listed repetitions for these exercises. There’s a reason for that; any one of these exercises could be started with a single repetition. If you are struggling to get started, you can build the habit of exercising by doing each of these four exercises for one rep at the same time each day. Then, you can increase the repetitions or number of sets as you become more comfortable.
A kettlebell can take this routine to the next level. A kettlebell can provide resistance on your squats and calf raises. If you get one light and one-mid weight bell, you can explore a wide variety of full-body exercises.
For seniors with advanced balanced issues, a comprehensive fall prevention program could be necessary. However, many individuals can use a preemptive exercise program to help stop the issues from advancing to that level. All of these exercises can be completed with little or no equipment, which makes them both affordable and convenient.
It is never too late to start exercising to decrease your risk of a fall-related injury. A fall, even one that results in significant injury, does not have to be the end of the road, but it is a significant obstacle to overcome. To live our best lives, we need to invest in our strength and balance early; if we make these movements a habit before deterioration begins, our bodies will pay us back with interest down the road.