Use it or lose it
Older adults should exercise regularly to lower their fall risk.
Johnny Woodhouse Published: 9/17/2018
As they age, many people experience a loss of muscle mass, a condition called sarcopenia. This condition can lead to issues with balance, putting individuals at risk for falling, as well as a predictable downward spiral of functional strength.
Although sarcopenia is a natural part of aging, it is possible to slow its progress through regular exercise. It’s not just about feeling healthier in general. It’s a matter of balance and reducing your risk of a fall.
Many people aren’t aware that, by far, falls are the leading cause of injury-related emergency department visits for older adults. Falls are the major cause of hip fractures, and responsible for more than half of fatal head injuries, according to the National Council on Aging.
September is Healthy Aging Month and a good time for seniors, particularly those over the age of 65, to take stock of their balance and mobility.
You’ve probably heard the saying “use it or lose it,” when it comes to physical conditioning. The same applies to seniors who lose strength, stamina and endurance if they don’t stay active. Bruce Cathcart, a specially trained geriatric physical therapist with the Baptist AgeWell Center for Senior Health, says a sedentary lifestyle causes muscles to become weak and bones to become brittle.
“There is so much reaction time lost due to aging. The main thing to combat this is to maintain or enhance your exercise routine,” he said. “And people who have slowed down a lot can actually gain a lot of functional strength back by just starting to exercise.”
Because seniors have less muscle mass to work with, it can be harder for them to complete everyday tasks such as getting out of chairs, cars or bed, said Raphael Balbino, MD, a family physician trained in geriatric medicine at Baptist AgeWell. Some seniors also take multiple medications that may cause dizziness and contribute to their risk of falling.
“From a geriatric perspective, we try to identify if people are on more meds than they need to be, and if they are exercising regularly and paying attention to their nutrition and hydration,” said Dr. Balbino.
Seniors who are actually at risk for a fall with injury or simply avoiding walking and moving can benefit from a comprehensive physical therapy assessment and treatment plan that can help maintain and even improve their safety.
Signs that you may benefit from this type of program:
- Apprehension about losing balance or falling
- Sedentary lifestyle or lack of physical activity
- Difficulty or slowness with walking
- Difficulty getting down on or up from the floor
- Complaints of fatigue, weakness or lack of energy
Cathcart said chair exercises are beneficial to the heart, but do little to enhance balance. Muscle-strengthening exercises will not only prepare seniors for sudden falls, but also help prevent them.
“Otherwise,” said Dr. Balbino, “they are going to lose that muscle mass and won’t be able to recruit it when they really need it.”
If you are concerned about balance issues, you may benefit from an evaluation by AgeWell’s InBalance program. A geriatric physical therapist uses a variety of assessments to measure and treat balance issues in patients 65 and above, and to establish a baseline to develop a customized conditioning schedule. The program is for individuals covered by Medicare but a physician’s order is required to participate. Call 904.202.4243 to schedule an appointment.