Perhaps you can relate to the following course of events. Mary, age 65, began to notice that her walking gait was sometimes unstable. This progressed to occasional wobbly sensations and a few times when she had to catch herself from falling. Eventually, she stepped off the side of her back steps and tumbled onto the sidewalk. Although Mary did not sustain a serious injury, she realized that she needed to take appropriate action to prevent further balance problems and to avoid future falls.
Like many older adults, Mary had been leading a relative sedentary lifestyle, with essentially no attention to maintain her waning muscle strength. In the absence of regular resistance exercise, we lose muscle throughout the aging process. Women who do not strength train average about 5 pounds of muscle loss each decade before menopause and up to 10 pounds of muscle loss each decade after menopause. As our muscles and bones become weaker, we gradually experience less body stability and less physical ability, which predisposes us to a variety of balance and coordination issues, including falls.
From a statistical perspective, 1 of 3 people over age 65 report a fall each year, and 80 percent of these falls occur in or near the home. Although medical conditions (including medications) and sensory system decline (including eye and ear issues) can adversely affect balance, diminished muscular strength is a major risk factor for falling.
Resistance exercise is highly recommended to improve musculoskeletal fitness, increase functional strength, and improve balance, all of which reduce fall potential. In two studies with older adults we found 35% improvement and 50% improvement in a standard balance assessment following just 10 weeks of a basic resistance training program (1 set of 10 Nautilus machine exercises, performed two days a week). In our landmark nursing home study with 90-year old residents, 14 weeks of a brief resistance training program (1 set of 5 Nautilus machine exercises, performed two days a week) enabled these elderly adults to spend much more time walking rather than sitting in wheelchairs. However, even though their walking increased their number of falls decreased.
In addition to strength training, there are useful steps that you can take to improve your balance, coordination, and fall avoidance. You can begin by getting a balance assessment to identify any stability weaknesses. Second, you can practice appropriate balance and coordination exercises, including functional skills and motor movements with various types of apparatus. Third, you can participate in specialized and individualized balance programs under expert professional leadership.
FREE BALANCE WORKSHOP
On Thursday, September 14th, from 5:15 to 6:30 PM we are hosting a balance workshop at Quincy College. This functional session is designed for older adults, and will be directed by Elisa Ogawa form the University of Massachusetts Boston, who is conducting a major research study on this topic. The workshop will be held at our Presidents Place location (1250 Hancock Street, Quincy, basement floor Fitness Center). All seniors are welcome to participate in this free balance workshop, but please call us at 617.984.1716 to reserve your place.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., directs the Exercise Science Program at Quincy College. Rita La Rosa Loud, B.S., directs the Community Health and Fitness Center at Quincy College.