“Help!… I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” – A line from a television commercial for Life Alert medical alert system
One of the most common 911 calls fire departments get from retirement communities is a non-injury, “lift-assist” call. As the name implies, lift-assists usually involves an elderly person who needs assistance to move out of a chair or bed, or who fell and needs help getting up. The frequency of these calls is an early indicator of more serious health problems, often related to sedentary behavior. This further puts older adults at risk for more serious falls.
Falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries among older adults. Every 19 minutes in this country, an older person dies as a result of a fall. “One fall in five among older adults results in a serious injury, and older people are less able to recover from the trauma physically and emotionally.” Healthcare costs from non-fatal falls total $50 billion per year! A common occurrence when an older person falls is an increased fear of falling, which often leads to inactivity and social isolation, causing further physical and mental decline. Patricia Dykes studies fall prevention at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She says that when an older person falls “they become afraid to move”. They’ll think, “Maybe I shouldn’t walk so much”. Then they get weaker, and their balance gets poorer. This starts a spiral of more falls, increased injuries and worsening health.
To be clear, everyone has fallen at some point in their life. Infants, for example, learn to walk by learning to fall. Each fall to the floor and transition to standing develops motor control, strengthens muscles, and improves mobility and coordination. During childhood, running on the playground or learning to ride a bicycle often results in falling, usually with just a scrape or bruise, and this doesn’t deter kids from their playtime. As kids grow older and improve their motor control through play and sports, there are less accidental falls.
As adults, some falls are unavoidable. But falling is not an inevitable consequence of aging. Most falls are preventable once you know why they happen and take steps to minimize the risk for yourself, and for relatives and friends whose age or health status renders them especially vulnerable. Many of the participants in my senior fitness classes have musculoskeletal or neurological issues that affect their balance and gait and put them at risk for falling. Other age-related factors that can increase the risk of falling are medications, overconsumption of alcohol, vision and hearing impairments that affect proprioception, cognitive decline, and fear of falling. However, the biggest reason why we fall and age poorly is our sedentary lifestyle. Older adults who are mostly sedentary are likely to suffer poor physical function and other signs of ill health. Being sedentary leads to loss of muscle strength, mobility, and stability in your core, legs and hips. This can increase difficulties with walking and balance — all of which can lead to falls.
There are ways to minimize the chances of falling, but one of the best things you can do is spend less time sitting in a chair and more time moving your body in a variety of ways, including spending time on the floor. Why? Because just like infants who learn to walk by falling, each transition to the floor and back up improves motor control, mobility and coordination and strengthens muscles. Also, since the “fear of falling” is a risk factor, learning how to safely get down and up from the ground will build confidence and improve your ability to recover from a fall (see this Instagram video). This is one reason why I finish most of my classes on the floor, in order to build your strength, confidence, and resilience to a potential fall!
Other ways to reduce your risk of falling include unilateral exercises which actively train one side of the body at a time (such as a lunge or a single-arm dumbbell shoulder press), and improve your core stability leading to better balance. Reactive balance training can also improve coordination and help you “catch yourself” and avoid a fall if you should trip. These training exercises are regularly practiced in our Functional Fitness classes which is how we train your muscles to make everyday activities easier — like getting up from a chair or the floor.
To maintain your ability to move up and down from the floor as you age, be intentional about spending more time on the floor.
- Forgo the couch or Lazyboy chair when watching TV or reading a book; sit on the floor with a support cushion instead.
- Add floor stretches or hip mobility exercises that can help you more easily get off the floor.
- Take a class that emphasizes floor time like Yoga, or Pilates, or my Functional Fitness class!