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Exercise Creates Balance, Stops Falls

March 25, 2015 (Updated: March 14, 2019)
Lily Moran

Most people take balance for granted. Like air, it’s one of those things you just don’t think about until it’s gone. And then suddenly, even the simplest of tasks become difficult or downright impossible.

An estimated 30 million people visit their doctors every year for balance-related issues. And balance disorders are the number-one reason that older adults suffer life-altering falls. In fact, a third of adults over 65 fall every year.

I’ve seen time and again how hip fractures can impact seniors’ lives. It’s devastating. More than 50 percent of patients over age 75 who live in long-term care facilities end up there because they fell and lost their ability to live independently.

Balance disorders can start quickly and unexpectedly. The most common causes include medication side effects, ear damage or infections, arthritis, strokes, head injuries, low blood pressure, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and arrhythmia.

It’s not totally unusual, though, to never really find a cause. Talk about frustrating!

Treating or curing an underlying issue such as ear or blood pressure problems can help to restore balance. But for millions of seniors, lack of equilibrium becomes a lifelong struggle.

Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. Tons of research consistently finds that one very simple thing can improve balance, prevent falls, and reestablish independence among older adults.

Exercise for Balance and Fall Prevention

Because so many of the people I advise are older, I follow all of the research that comes out on fall prevention. Lately, I’ve been pleased to see a slew of new studies on the value of exercise for correcting balance and reducing falls.

For seniors, the benefits of exercise go far beyond better endurance, flexibility, and strength. For one, it enhances coordination and reaction time, which can help you quickly grab on to something and prevent a tumble. It also builds stronger bones and muscles to protect against fractures and buffer the impact of a fall.

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In a study released last month, researchers compared strength and balance training in young (age 20-30) and old (age 65+) adults. In the beginning, the young participants outperformed the older ones. But at the end of the 13-week training period, the seniors nearly reached the same levels of strength and balance displayed by their younger counterparts.

Additional research published last year found that strength and resistance training led to significant balance recovery in adults over the age of 70.

Also, it appears that all types of exercises, regardless of intensity, are beneficial. Vigorous activity improves gait and stability when getting up from a seated position. But lower intensity exercise can enhance static balance. (A good test of static balance is to stand on one leg for as long as possible without holding on to anything.)

And don’t underestimate the value of ancient exercises such as tai chi and yoga. Research suggests that both work as well or better than standard care in boosting quality of life, correcting balance, and lowering risk of falls.

All of these studies validate the results of a large meta-analysis published in 2013. In it, researchers looked at 17 trials involving 4,305 participants. They concluded that exercise had a significant positive effect on four categories of falls: all injurious falls, falls resulting in medical care, severe injurious falls, and falls resulting in fractures.

It’s indisputable. No matter what your age, you should be exercising. But it becomes less of an option and more of a necessity the older you get. Regular activity can curb equilibrium issues before they even start. And if you already have balance concerns, exercise can train your brain to adapt and re-stabilize you.

For maximum benefit, vary your routine by alternating between cardio-aerobic, strength and resistance, and flexibility and balance training at least five days a week.

But start slow. You don’t need to run a marathon or deadlift 600 lb. Start by walking up and down your street…buy a few 10-15 lb dumbells. Work slow and increase from there.

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