Exercise NOW, Prevent Falling Later
This week’s post focuses on something that I find myself discussing with clients often: exercising for function rather than just aesthetics. It is one thing to exercise to look better, but another to exercise with the goal of maintaining your functional movement. The latter is more important for long term health. Read on to find out more…
Every time I enter a big commercial gym, I am smacked in the face with spandex, bright colors, and people who are there because they want to look better. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this (except the guy in the neon green muscle shirt with REALLY tight pants…that was wrong).
I can understand why people want to exercise to look good. Who doesn’t? And many gyms make a lot of money off of these clients, so it’s a win-win. But today I want to talk about a more important reason for exercising.
As the age 65+ population in the U.S. continues to soar to record highs, one of the biggest problems is the growing number of people who are at risk for falling. According to the CDC 1 out of every 3 older adults (65+) falls every year. According to the same source, 1 out of every 5 falls causes a serious injury such as a broken bone or head injury.
These injuries not only lead to increased hospitalization and mortality rates, but also to decreased autonomy. In other words, the ability to function independently is gone. Can you imagine having to rely on someone else to help you get dressed, go to the store, or even walk?
The good news – You are not doomed to this fate! Steps can be taken to ensure that you are still able to function independently in everyday life as you get older. One of the biggest steps you can take to prevent falling is performing regular exercise.
In my opinion, the fitness industry should focus more of its efforts on helping people to maintain function. It is great to help people lose a few pounds and look better, and again there is nothing wrong with this. But we’re talking about potentially saving someone’s life here.
Do You Need to Exercise for Fall Prevention?
Before I jump too far into this topic, let me just say that you don’t have to already be at risk of falling to benefit from this article, nor do you have to be over 65. In fact, you shouldn’t wait until this point to start focusing on preventing falls and maintaining function.
If you wait until you’re already starting to lose the ability to function normally, it is an uphill battle to gain it back. Instead, take a proactive approach. Focus on maintaining things like balance, strength, power, and good movement patterns before they start to decline on their own.
On the other hand, if you are already at risk for falling, know that it is never too late to start exercising for fall prevention. No matter where you are at in life, you can always get stronger and improve how your body functions.
Risk Factors for Falling
The risk factors for falling are wide ranging. Here are some examples of what puts people at risk:
history of falls
use of walking device
number of medications
As you can see, the risk factors are diverse. However, I want to talk about three that I did not put on that list, which I believe to be very important. Muscle weakness, gait deficits (i.e. dysfunction in how you walk), and balance deficits. Unlike many of the other risk factors on the list, these three can be avoided through regular exercise.
Many of the risk factors for falling are moderated by changing the surrounding environment. Examples of this are things like removing ice from walkways, ensuring your house is free of clutter, installing handrails along stairs and walkways, and avoiding banana peels.
Banana Peels – The Danger is Real!
Other risk factors are moderated by changing how you interact with your surrounding environment. These would include things like wearing glasses or contacts for vision (seeing where you’re going is always a good thing!), wearing non-slip footwear, staying indoors when there is bad weather, and avoiding evil penguins.
While making the environment around you less risky is one way to reduce the risk of falling, I would argue that a better way is to train your body to react to the environment around you. It is hard to control for things like ice on the sidewalks, stairs without a hand railing, or misplaced banana peels all the time. However, you can control how strong and stable your body is.
What Can Exercise Do?
Exercise is a great way to prevent falls because it promotes strength, balance, and body awareness. These are things that all tend to decline as we age.
In fact, between the ages of 40-50 you can lose more than 8% of your total muscle mass. That number can increase to more than 15% per decade after the age of 75. This decline in strength and muscle mass has a large effect on fall risk.
Fortunately, we know that if you use it, you won’t lose it. Many believe that they are destined to lose strength and function as they age, but studies have shown that this is not the case. If you continue to exercise and challenge your body to improve, it will get stronger, not weaker.
The same is true for balance and body awareness. Your body relies on input and output from various systems to maintain and control movement. These systems require that you continue using them and challenging them. Exercising in ways that challenge your balance and stability will maintain and improve your balance and stability.
How to Exercise for Fall Prevention
Exercise is a means by which you can train your mind and body to be more in control of your movement. Just like language and math are skills that can be learned, movement is also a skill that can be learned. Of course, this dictates that your exercise program actually involves learning movement.
On the other hand, if you are just walking for exercise, this doesn’t train good movement patterns. It may be a great form of cardiovascular exercise, but it doesn’t train your body to learn various movement patterns in different planes of movement.
Similarly, sitting on a machine with a weight stack and pushing or pulling a handle to move the weights up and down may be great for isolated muscle strengthening, but it doesn’t train movement. In fact, this kind of exercise totally removes all need to stabilize and move your body in a real world environment.
A good exercise program for fall prevention should incorporate movement and balance training in a real world environment. We like to call this functional training. This does not mean standing on an unstable surface like a BOSU ball or Physio Ball, or doing push-ups on medicine balls.
This is not functional exercise!
Functional training means training your body to function like it would in real life. Unless you’ve started walking to work on BOSU balls, then standing on them for your workout isn’t very functional. Instead, you should incorporate movement patterns that teach your body to move and stabilize through increasingly challenging movements.
To start, you should incorporate these 6 movement patterns which I previously wrote about. Movements such as a squat, hip hinge or row force your muscles to not only create movement, but also stabilize your body. These exercises get you up on your feet and moving in different ways all while maintaining balance.
You can easily progress these movements by adding additional resistance, changing your base of support, or making them more dynamic.
For example, a squat can be progressed by adding more weight for external loading. It can also be progressed by moving from a regular squat to a split squat which has a narrower base of support. From here, you can progress to a walking lunge or some form of jump to make it more dynamic.
Bulgarian Split Squat
As you progress your workout to incorporate more movements that challenge your strength and stability in a real world environment, you will notice that moving around becomes much easier. Suddenly, you won’t have to use the handrail to go up the stairs. You won’t have to be as concerned about traversing through inclement weather. You will feel more confident in how you can control your body.
This is a great feeling, and is more rewarding than just looking better. You may lose 10 pounds or you may not. The more important thing is that you’re taking control of your body. You’re moving better, feeling better, and living better.
If you want to prevent falls, then your exercise program must incorporate movement patterns that require balance. Sitting on a machine or walking on a treadmill may cause you to sweat, but they don’t help you to maintain balance and function.
You are not destined to be one of the “1 out of every 3” who will fall. You’re not just a statistic, you can take control of your life and your body. Start exercising for better function and movement today, and prevent falling tomorrow!