Two proven exercise strategies to help seniors avoid falling
According to the United Nations, “Between 2017 and 2030, the number of persons aged 60 years or over is projected to grow by 46 per cent (from 962 million to 1.4 billion) globally outnumbering youth, as well as children under the age of 10.” These compelling numbers should be a wake-up call for all of us working in the fields of Pilates, exercise and movement education to learn what creates the best results for older adults and why.
Evidence shows that an active lifestyle is critical to healthy aging, which the World Health Organization defines as “… the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables wellbeing in older age.”
Maintaining an active lifestyle as we age isn’t just about modifying exercises or activities that we might have done in our ‘20s. It requires incorporating fall prevention strategies into our daily routines. Most people imagine this to mean balancing on one foot and learning how to get up off the floor. While these activities are important, learning to prevent a fall needs to include conditioning of structures and systems head to toe.
Multisensory training and foot and ankle exercises are two examples that improve a person’s ability to balance, shift weight and navigate changing terrain. Both can be done in short or long intervals. They can also be done anywhere—at the studio, gym, at home or on the road.
With multisensory training, the sensorimotor, the visual and vestibular systems are targeted. All three are involved with maintaining equilibrium. Changing the environment to stimulate one system over the others is a simple way to conduct this type training and a fun way to challenge both body and mind. Altering the body position, closing one or both eyes, or using different types of surfaces–cushiony, spiky, stable, or unstable–are all examples of changing the environment. The key is working on the systems that control balance and not just on balance exercises.
Example of a multisensory exercise sequence:
- Sit on a chair and do arm movements
- Sit on a balance cushion on a chair and do arm movements
- Sit on a balance cushion on a chair, close eyes and do arm movements
- Sit on a balance cushion on a chair, close eyes, turn to one side slightly, and do arm movements
Mobility for feet and ankles
People who can align their centre of mass (body) directly above their base of support (feet) during quiet standing can sway as much as 12° in a forward-backward direction (8° forward and 4° backward) and 16° laterally before they must take a step. This ability to sway without taking a step is referred to as a stability limit. In older adults who are beginning to experience balance problems, stability limits decrease, especially in the backward and lateral directions. The result is an increased risk of falling.
What causes a decrease in stability limits?
- Weak ankle muscles and reduced range of motion in the ankles
- Neurological trauma such as stroke or Parkinson’s disease
Exercises to improve stability limits:
- Wiggle toes in as many directions as possible
- Plantar and dorsiflex ankles (“point and flex feet”)
- Draw circles with feet
- Draw the alphabet with feet
- Squat with emphasis on ankle motion (bending at the ankles)
In the common aging-related doomsday scenario, people imagine life as an old person to include living in a body that loses muscle strength and bone density by the minute. Aging gets equated with chronic aches and pains, varying degrees of cognitive decline, and social isolation with no sense of purpose.
General physical activity is not the panacea for aging, but when healthy aging is the main objective, physical, mental and emotional needs of our senior population can be met easily with thoughtful and thorough exercise programming.