Health Matters: Avoiding Falls and Other Benefits of Exercise
Many people have older friends and relatives who have declined quickly after a fall—a grandmother who fell and broke her hip, then got pneumonia in the hospital; or a grandfather who fell and hit his head and was never quite the same. As we age, it’s increasingly important to stay strong if we are to avoid the leading cause of accidental death in America for people aged 65 years and older: falls. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014 alone, older Americans experienced 29 million falls causing seven million injuries and costing an estimated $31 billion in annual Medicare costs.
The good news is that almost everyone, regardless of fitness level, can improve their health through movement and exercise. I’m not talking about joining a gym or hiring a fitness trainer. I’m talking about going for walks, taking a Tai Chi class at the senior center, or signing up for a city parks and recreation pickleball team. And there are plenty of exercises you can do from a chair, if that’s what you need.
To reduce the risk of falling, it’s important to strengthen the muscles around the beltline, those in the abdomen, lower back, pelvis, and hips. It’s also important to strengthen bones. Like muscles, bones are living tissue that get stronger with use. When it all comes down to it, though, the type of exercise you choose isn’t nearly as important as your commitment to doing it.
The mistake most people make is that they put exercise at the end rather than the beginning of their to-do list. They plan to exercise after the dishes are done, the laundry is folded, and the bills are paid. When in reality, exercise should always come first, because done right, it will increase energy and alertness, which makes all those other activities easier.
Exercise causes a cascade of positive effects. It increases strength and flexibility, which improves balance as well as confidence. It enables people to remain independent, which improves self-esteem. It reduces pain and increases functionality, allowing people to enjoy their favorite past times, which increases their engagement with loved ones and with life in general. And when we exercise with a friend, we feel less isolated (plus, we’re more likely to be consistent because who wants to be a flake?). Exercise improves our quality of life in almost every way.
How Much and What Kind?
As I mentioned before, the most important kind of exercise is the kind you’ll actually do. If you don’t enjoy an activity, you’re less likely to stick with it. Also, it’s best if you start slowly and set realistic goals. For example, if you don’t exercise at all right now, plan on 30 minutes of mild exercise three days a week and build from there. Ideally, you should exert yourself enough to break a sweat and begin breathing harder, hard enough that you couldn’t whistle a tune but not so hard that you couldn’t talk to someone.
You don’t want to be gasping for air—no guppy breathing. Ignore the old adage, “No pain, no gain.” Listen to your body. The pain response evolved to let us know something’s wrong and we should pay attention. Being a little sore the day after a workout is fine. Shooting pains and/or numbness are not.
If you have a chronic condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), it’s probably wise to consult your medical provider to minimize risks. Exercise will help all these conditions, but you don’t want to overdo it.
If you’re already 65 or older, that’s fine. Start exercising today. If you’re younger than 65, so much the better. The younger you start exercising, the easier it is to build and maintain strength and flexibility, and the longer you’ll have to enjoy all the other perks of exercise.
Justin Ebert, PA-C, is the medical director at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.