HEALTHY YOU

Steps to take - before you fall

Balance exercises help, as do nightlights in your home

Simple exercises like raising up on your toes or heels while standing at your kitchen counter can help improve your bala
Simple exercises like raising up on your toes or heels while standing at your kitchen counter can help improve your balance. Or alternate standing on one foot and then the other while brushing your teeth. (Adobe Stock)

Preventing falls is an important part of staying healthy as we get older.

Doing balance exercises can help prevent falls, as can simple changes around your home.

Three Cedar Rapids physical therapists discuss steps to take.

Chris Cass, a physical therapist with Rock Valley Physical Therapy, said muscle strength plays an important role in balance.

“There are a lot of muscles working together to keep us upright, and strengthening those muscles helps prevent future falls,” he said.

Leg, ankle and even core muscles play a role. Exercises like standing up from a seated position multiple times in a row, called sit-to-stand exercises,

are good for improving leg strength, and raising up on your toes or heels while standing at your kitchen counter can give ankle muscles a workout.

Cass said practicing good posture also plays a role in fall prevention and can help keep your core strong.

“If your posture is too far forward, it affects the distribution of your weight and can pull you forward, leading to a fall,” he said.

To keep all your muscles strong, Cass encourages staying as active as possible.

“I rarely tell people to avoid activities outright, but they may need to be extra cautious. If you play badminton, for example, keep it up, but take it

slower,” he said.

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It can be challenging to keep people active if they’ve experienced a fall, which causes them to feel nervous about falling again.

Cass said the loss of confidence can be a risk factor in itself.

“That can be one of the main reasons for a fall,” he said. “We want people to feel confident and empowered.”

MAKING HOME SAFE

For even the most active seniors, small changes can make the home environment safer.

Megan Andresen, a physical therapist with UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital, said it’s common to rely more on vision for balance as we age, which can be problematic in low light.

She recommended adding a nightlight between the bed and bathroom, which can make a big difference in avoiding a common cause of falls.

Andresen also recommends wearing supportive shoes (not slippers) while inside and storing frequently used items on low shelves. Avoid stepladders and keep floors free of clutter.

A challenge physical therapists and health care providers face is convincing seniors to be proactive about these steps before they suffer a fall.

“Most falls are preventable, and it’s important to speak up and tell someone if you’re noticing balance issues,” Andresen said.

Falls are the leading cause of traumatic brain injury in those 65 and older, and injuries like sprains can cause secondary issues like muscle weakness as the injury heals.

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Andresen helps patients strengthen their vestibular, or inner ear, systems, which plays a big role in balance and can weaken with age.

“In the office, we put people in situations where they’ll lose balance so they can work on reaction strategies,” she said. This isn’t a method that

should be tried at home, but it’s highly effective because it challenges this system and keeps it from atrophying.

“People are amazed how quickly their balance improves,” Andresen said.

She also asks patients to stand on soft surfaces with their eyes closed, or in a corner while moving their head. “The more you work on your balance, the stronger it’s going to be when you really need it,” she said.

WALKING SPEED

One clue that it might be time to seek physical therapy is slowed walking speed.

Nancy Buss, a physical therapist with Advanced Therapy Specialists, said she often clocks walking speed against average times as part of patient assessment.

“If you have pain or don’t feel balanced, you’ll naturally walk slower,” she said. “It’s a snapshot of how your body is functioning — some consider it the fifth vital sign.”

With many people staying home right now, Buss said she’s concerned that seniors might experience an increase in balance problems.

“We’re not moving as much, not scanning for traffic or looking up and down the aisles of the grocery store,” she said.

To help compensate, she recommends home exercises for those who are able.

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“Every time you stand up, sit back down and do it again, or make a habit of standing up and sitting down five times in a row while watching your favorite show,” she said.

With so many exercises available to improve balance, Buss encourages seniors to seek care before a fall happens.

“I describe it to my patients” she said, “by saying the road of communication from one of your systems has construction, and we can help build a detour.”

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