There is direct proportional relationship between the prevalence of falls and the population’s age. As the US’ population ages, the rate of falls rises as well. However, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) suggests that physical therapist intervention may help reduce the incidence of falls.
Physical therapists Marilyn Moffat, PT, PhD, professor of physical therapy at New York University, and Carole Lewis, PT, PhD, GCS, professor in the department of geriatrics at George Washington University, authors of Age-Defying Fitness, say that you have to train your balance in the same way you have to train your muscles for strength and your heart for aerobic capacity.
According to Moffat and Lewis, balance may be improved with exercises that strengthen the ankle, knee, and hip muscles and with exercises that improve the function of the vestibular (balance) system. Moffat and Lewis suggest starting with a simple assessment of your current ability to maintain good balance. With a counter or sturdy furniture near enough to steady you if necessary, perform this test:
1. Stand straight, wearing flat, closed shoes, with your arms folded across your chest. Raise one leg, bending the knee about 45 degrees, start a stopwatch, and close your eyes.
2. Remain on one leg, stopping the watch immediately if you uncross your arms, tilt sideways more than 45 degrees, move the leg you are standing on, or touch the raised leg to the floor.
3. Repeat this test with the other leg.
4. Compare your performance to the norms for various ages: 20 to 49 years old (24 to 28 seconds); 50 to 59 years (21 seconds); 60 to 69 years (10 seconds); 70 to 79 years (4 seconds); 80 and older (most cannot do this test).
To improve balance and reduce falls risk, physical therapists may recommend stability and strengthening exercises; a formal exercise program; a walking regimen that includes balance components such as changes in surfaces/terrains, distance, and elevations; Tai Chi (which emphasizes balance, weight shifting, coordination, and postural training); and aquatics classes geared toward balance and coordination.
APTA Toll-Free Hotline
The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) will sponsor a national toll-free hotline addressing ways to improve balance and reduce the risk of falls on Friday, February 8, from 9:00 am until 5:00 pm, EST. Physical therapists will answer questions about the risk factors of falling, how the body maintains its balance, and how older adults can help to improve their balance and reduce the risk of falling. However, please note that this public service by the APTA is not a substitute for a visit to a physical therapist or other health care professional. The toll-free number is 1-877-NEED-A-PT (633-3278).