Exercise Not Only Prevents Falls, But May Protect Elders Who Do Fall from Serious Injuries

Family Caregiving, Families, Food and Fitness, Creating Healthy Communities September 05, 2015 Print Friendly and PDF

Adults exercising through tai chi

One in three Americans age 65 or older suffers a fall each year, and as many as 30 percent of those who fall sustain moderate-to-severe injuries.

Fall injuries not only cost many older people their freedom and mobility; they strain the resources of family caregivers and add $30 billion in direct medical costs to the U.S. healthcare system, a number expected to grow as the population ages.

A new study suggests that elder adults who exercise are not only less likely to fall than their age peers who don’t exercise, but if they do fall, they're significantly less likely to get hurt.

Previous studies have shown that regular exercise reduces the chances of falls, but the latest research, a metanalysis of 17 previous studies involving more than 4,000 elderly participants, showed that elders who exercise suffer 37 percent fewer injuries, are 43 percent less likely to experience a fall that requires hospital admission, and 61 percent less likely to break bones if they do fall.

The average age of the people included in the analysis was about 77 years old, and more than three quarters of them were women.

The study authors note: “Even falls causing relatively minor injuries are important to consider, as they too may have serious consequences, such as diminished self confidence, social isolation, and restriction on activity, which in turn will accelerate functional decline and increase the risk of placement in a nursing home.”

“The damage from a fall, both physical and emotional, often cannot be undone,” says Kathy Gunter, associate professor and Extension specialist at Oregon State University. “The good news is that falls aren’t inevitable; they’re preventable.

“Several research-based programs, such as Tufts’ Strong Women and our own Better Bones & Balance have recognized this and strive through exercise-program delivery and instructor training to increase communities’ capacity to provide fall-prevention education and physical activity programming. Including balance-specific challenges and practice is critical to truly prevent falls,” Gunter says.

“Bone loading exercises may improve bone mass and/or structure, which is an attractive side effect, but the true benefit – especially for our oldest Americans, is in preventing the fall – or through mobility training and increasing muscle strength – changing the nature of the fall.”

Being able to catch oneself and fall forward – or not at all – is more likely achieved by someone who has sufficient muscle tone and strength, in short, an exerciser!

Anne Lindsay, an associate professor and exercise/health Extension specialist with the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, says that many changes that occur in the aging process may predispose elders to falls.

“Yet all too often, people say, ‘How can we fix the home environment so it’s safer?’ That’s important, yes, but people really need to think about strengthening the aging person so they’re overall less likely to fall or to hurt themselves if they do,” says Lindsay, an exercise physiologist by training.

“Oftentimes, people look at the national suggestions for exercise, and feel overwhelmed. They say they can’t, so they simply won’t do it.

“I say, you’ve got to start somewhere. Especially for people who sit all day, just get up and do something.

“I love the online paper, Measuring Functional Fitness in Older Adults. Although it’s written for exercise professionals, it contains a great overview of what’s at stake and what’s needed. There’s a seven-item assessment tool that can work as a self-assessment. People can use it for self-assessment, then work to improve in each of the items.

“The more I look at it, the more I think that just trying to improve in each of the functional fitness categories of the assessment would make a pretty good exercise program in and of itself.”

Here’s more
•    Better Bones & Balance
•    Why strength training?
•    Good video on preventing falls
•    University of Maine video Matter of Balance
•    'Late starters' still have much to gain by exercising.  Over 60s who took up exercise were three times more likely to remain healthy over the next eight years than their sedentary peers.
•    'Silver Swans' take to the barre later in life for ballet lessons. Scottish dancers in their 60s and 70s are taking up ballet for strength, balance, memory, and social support.

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Released December 5, 2013

Sources: Anne Lindsay, M.S., University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, lindsaya@unce.unr.edu

Kathy Gunter, Ph.D., Oregon State University, kathy.gunter@oregonstate.edu

Writer: Peg Boyles, eXtension, writangl@gmail.com

Photo from Flickr: Dan4th https://flic.kr/p/4WgBNW  Some rights reserved. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.