Preventing Falls as you get older – How exercise can help

Why is this important? 

Around 1 in 3 adults living at home and aged over 65 fall each year. This can knock not just their body but also their confidence, their independence and their mental health i.e. it has psychological impact too.

When the falls result in hip fractures the results can be particularly serious. According to a BMJ Quality Improvement report in 2014, ‘Hip fracture is one of the most serious consequences of falls in the elderly, with a mortality of 10% at one month and 30% at one year.’

Furthermore, according to an earlier Australian study only one in three older people who survive a hip fracture return to their previous level of independence, with 25% of survivors requiring full-time nursing-home care. 

Falls are not only traumatic for the faller. They cost health systems a significant amount - £2 billion a year in the case of the NHS

So preventing falls among older adults is becoming a priority worldwide.  

Fortunately exercise can make a difference 

‘Exercise programmes designed to prevent falls in older adults also seem to prevent injuries caused by falls, including the most severe ones. Such programmes also reduce the rate of falls leading to medical care.’  This is the verdict from a systematic review of research findings published in the BMJ in 2013.

A combination of different types of exercise seems to help i.e. strength, endurance and balance training. That’s what another 2013 study found.

There were similar findings from a systematic review published in the previous year. This concluded that group and home-based exercise programmes, usually containing some balance and strength training exercises, effectively reduced falls, as did Tai Chi

The NHS have published leaflets and online information explaining a number of balance and strength improving exercises you can do at home without the need for special classes or equipment. These include:

  • Standing on one foot, leg raises, side stepping or side walking, heel to toe walking and walking up and down stairs.

Research published in the BMJ and guidelines from The Chartered Society of Physiotherapists report that integration of balance and strength training into everyday life (for example working at the kitchen sink, closing a drawer and picking things up from the floor) is particularly effective. This is especially true when helped by health or exercise professionals.

The following are examples of other types of exercise that can help:

Shall we dance? 

Dancing also offers many health benefits, including improving strength and balance. A BUPA report advises that a number of studies show dance improves balance and gait (the way people walk). It concludes, ‘dance is also likely to have the secondary effect of reducing the risk of falls in older people.’ This is in addition to the social and mental health benefits of dance noted in the report. 

Where can we get help? 

Local health services have been rolling out a programme of falls prevention strategies so you should be able to access this through your local hospital or community healthcare team. In addition, falls risk assessments are available for individuals who have balance or gait issues or who report they fall frequently. Your local health centre may also have information about this. Strength and Balance classes such as Otago Later Life are widely available. You can also download exercise information from AgeUK’s website.

Other Causes of Falls

Suggestions to reduce the risk of falls from other causes include: 

  • Colour contrasting handles and grab bars – where sight is impaired
  • Checking if any medical condition (like Parkinson’s Disease or low blood pressure) might increase the risk of falls
  • Checking if any medications might also increase the risk.
  • Regular sight tests
  • Removing items that might lead you to trip or slip around the home  

Conclusions 

  • Preventing falls saves lives and money 
  • We can do more to prevent falls – our own and friends and family. 
  • Exercise programmes containing balance and strength training exercises, including Tai Chi and Dance, all appear to reduce the risk of falls. 
  • You can find strength and balance exercises through the falls prevention team at your local hospital or other recognized sources.
  • Changes can also be made to the home to reduce the risk of falls
  • Check if any medical condition or medications increases the risk

Rachel Laughton-Scott  Published 04/02/2013.

Reviewed and updated by Devika K K Jethwa, September 2015.

Next review date August 2018.

Balance Exercises

Reducing the risk of a fall at home

More Balance Exercises

Falls – A risk assessment