With more than one in four adults over 65 suffering a fall each year, falls are the leading cause of injury for older adults in the United States. Many of these falls can create serious injuries that lead to long-term health complications and disabilities. However, falls are not an inevitable part of aging. There are many ways to reduce the risk of preventable falls, including physical therapy.
This article discusses the most common fall risk factors for aging adults and how physical therapy can prevent falls and fall-related injuries. We also provide some practical physical therapy exercises to try under the supervision of a trusted health care provider or loved one. Whether you want to improve your balance or build strength, physical therapy can help you reduce your fall risk.
The Most Common Fall Risk Factors for Older Adults
Older adults must be proactive about adopting strategies to prevent falls because falling once doubles the risk of falling again. Awareness is one of the most important aspects of fall prevention. If you're aware of your fall risk factors, you can significantly decrease the chance of falling.
While a combination of risk factors causes falls, many are preventable. The following are some of the most common issues that contribute to slips and trips for older adults:
- Various health conditions, including arthritis, diabetes, and orthostatic hypotension — a condition in which your blood pressure suddenly drops when you stand
- Medication side effects — like confusion, dizziness, and headaches — or taking multiple medications
- Muscle weakness and atrophy from a lack of physical activity
- Balance or walking problems
- Environmental hazards, like poor lighting, loose rugs, and fixture leaks
- Foot pain and inappropriate footwear
- Experiencing a fall in the past year
- Improper use of an assistive device, including a cane, walker, or scooter
- Impaired vision
- Incontinence that might cause you to rush to the restroom
How Physical Therapy Prevents Falls
While you cannot eliminate your fall risk, you can reduce it through physical therapy. One National Library of Medicine study suggests that regular multicomponent exercise helps prevent falls in older adults. Another study published by the Journal of American Geriatrics Society shows that physical therapy helped older adults reduce falls and fall-related injuries by up to 35%.
It's no wonder physical therapy reduces the chance of falls — routine physical activity is vital for our long-term physical health and mobility. Exercise strengthens your bones, muscles, and joints, naturally reducing the likelihood of conditions that increase fall risk, including sarcopenia and osteoporosis. For this reason, the World Health Organization suggests older adults partake in moderate to intense aerobic physical activity for 150 to 300 minutes per week.
How Physical Therapy Benefits Older Adults
Physical therapy programs usually include balance and strength-training exercises that improve muscle strength, balance, and coordination over time. A physical therapist can also conduct a home safety assessment to identify your home's slip, trip, and fall hazards. They might recommend using an assistive device like a cane or walker.
A physical therapist can develop an exercise program that meets your unique needs and help you:
- Improve core stability and strength
- Strengthen leg and arm muscles
- Enhance balance and equilibrium
- Assess and improve your gait speed
- Eliminate potential environmental hazards
- Teach you how to use an assistive device
Ultimately, routine physical therapy and assistive devices can improve mobility, enhance safety, and boost your confidence and desire to be physically active.
Physical Therapy Exercises for Older Adults
Below are some helpful types of physical therapy for seniors. These activities are only suited for people with a low fall risk who can stand without support from others. Speak with your primary care physician or physical therapist before attempting a new exercise or if you're unsure whether certain movements are beneficial for you.
Sit-to-Stand and Squat Exercises
Sit-to-stand and squatting exercises improve leg strength and balance. Here's how to conduct a sit-to-stand exercise:
- Using a stable chair positioned in front of a sturdy support surface like a countertop, begin by sitting in the chair with your feet flat on the ground. Make sure you are sitting on the edge of your seat.
- Leaning forward, shift your body weight up. Squeeze your gluteal muscles as you rise from the chair into a standing position.
- Slowly lower your body back into the chair, using your hands for support. Repeat this motion 10 times twice daily.
Balance exercises help improve balance and coordination, significantly reducing your fall risk. Always have your physical therapist or a loved one nearby when doing the following balance exercises:
- Preparation: Get ready by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and your eyes open for 10 seconds. Slowly work your way up to 30-second intervals.
- Side leg raises: Stand facing a stable surface. With your hands on the table or countertop, slowly lift your left leg to the side. Remember to keep your back straight and your toes facing forward. Repeat this motion 15 times per leg.
- Marching in place: Stand next to a stable surface for support. Begin by lifting your right knee as high as possible before lowering it. Repeat with your left knee. Continue to march in place for 20 intervals.
- Single limb balance: Stand facing the back of a sturdy chair. Holding onto the chair, lift one foot behind you and balance on the other foot for as long as you can. Switch feet when you're ready. Eventually, you should be able to stand on one foot for up to a minute.
Strength-training exercises keep your muscles, joints, and ligaments strong and limber. Ask your doctor or physical therapist about trying out these strength-training exercises:
- Toe lifts: Toe lifts improve leg muscle strength and balance. Standing in front of a sturdy support surface, extend your arms out in front of you. Hold on to your support if you need to. Raise up onto your tip-toes as high as possible before gently lowering your heels to the floor. Gently raise and lower your heels 15 to 20 times.
- Back leg raises: Strengthen your lower back and buttock muscles with back leg raises. To begin, stand facing the back of a sturdy chair. Hold on to the chair for support. Slowly lift one leg behind you, extending it as far as you can comfortably. Don't bend your knees as you lift your leg behind you. Hold your leg in the air for a couple of seconds before gently lowering it to the ground. Slowly raise and lower each leg 15 times.
- Wall push-ups: Stand arm's length away from a blank wall. Raise your hands to the wall at your shoulder height and width. Bring your body toward the wall with your feet firmly planted on the floor. Gently push away from the wall. Repeat this exercise up to 20 times.
Protect Yourself or a Loved One With a Medical Alert System
Physical therapy is an effective way to reduce your risk of falls. However, accidents happen. At Medical Guardian, we understand that having a backup plan is vital. It could even save a life. Our mission is to help you live without limits, including the fear of falls. We've designed our medical alert systems and fall detection devices to fit your lifestyle and complement your fall prevention strategies, providing you and your loved ones with the peace of mind you need to live independently and safely.
Contact the Medical Guardian team today to learn how a medical alert system could benefit you or a loved one. You can also take our quick product quiz to discover which of our award-winning medical alert systems best suits your needs and lifestyle.