Exercise is important at any age. But as we get older, our bodies need a little extra help maintaining flexibility and balance. An active lifestyle in later years can help prevent falls, allow you to live independently and help you enjoy a fulfilling social life.
As we age, we tend to lose strength in our quadriceps — the large muscles on the front of our thighs. These muscles are very important for mobility-related activities such as rising from a chair, getting out of bed, ascending or descending stairs, and even walking.
Exercise: Try rising from a regular chair without the use of your arms. Remember that you will have to lean your trunk forward (nose toward your toes) in order to stand. Repeat this exercise 15 to 30 times. If this is too challenging, place one or two pillows on the seat of the chair to raise the chair's height.
2. Hip Abduction (Leg Raise)
Hip strength is extremely important for standing on one leg, walking, and stepping over or around obstacles.
Exercise: Stand straight and hold the back of a chair (or something sturdy) with one hand for balance. Shift your weight to one leg and slowly swing your free leg up toward your side. You don't have to raise your leg very high; you should be able to maintain upright posture without leaning to the side. Try this exercise 15 to 30 times per leg. If this is too easy, you can try it without holding on, or try holding your leg out to the side for 10 to 20 seconds before lowering it back down.
3. Heel-Toe Raises
Ankle mobility and calf strength are vital to walking and balance. Strengthening these areas will make it easier to react to obstacles or shifting weight and prevent a fall.
Exercise: Rise to your toes as high as you can, then shift your weight back to your heels and try to lift your toes. Make sure to hold onto something sturdy, as this exercise will challenge your balance. Rock back and forth for 15 to 30 repetitions.
4. Calf Stretch
In addition to ankle strength, walking and balance require flexibility in your calves. Calves endure the brunt of your weight while walking and standing, which is why they often get tight after activity. Muscle fatigue in the calves can cause your body to sway and be more susceptible to a fall.
Exercise: Stand up straight with your hands against a wall and your toes positioned forward. Step back with one foot and hold the position. Be sure to keep your heel down and knee straight on your back leg. You should feel a gentle stretch in the lower portion of your back leg. Try to keep upright posture for the duration of the stretch. Hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds per leg.
5. Static Balance Exercise
This exercise will help strengthen your sense of balance. During the exercise, you should feel challenged (and yes, a little wobbly). However, you should not feel so challenged that you lose your balance or need to hold on to something for support.
Exercise: Stand up straight without holding on to anything. Make sure there is something sturdy within reach in case you lose your balance. Stand with your feet close together and balance for 20 to 30 seconds. If this is too easy, stand with one foot slightly in front of the other; the heel of one foot should be in line with the toes of the other foot. For an even greater challenge, stand with one foot directly in front of the other (heel to toe). Balance for 20 to 30 seconds before switching feet.
Choose the position that makes you a little wobbly, but doesn't cause you to lose your balance completely. If you must, use one fingertip to help you balance. If these positions are all very easy for you, progress to balancing on one foot. Start with five seconds, then try longer and longer as you get better.
"There are several precautions you can take to prevent falls. Talk with your doctor if you begin to feel unsteady on your feet," says Dr. Laliotis.
For more information on balance and fall prevention, join us for a three-part Fall Prevention Class Series for Seniors, presented by Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Centers. The seminar will help participants understand how normal aging processes contribute to falls, the risk factors associated with falls, and how to create personal plans for preventing a fall.