A Fitness Guide to Preventing Dangerous Falls in Old Age
Costly tumbles amongst seniors are an epidemic. Get ahead of them now.
Someone over the age of 65 falls down every second in the United States.
That’s a ton of tumbles, and it speaks to the physical toll that frailty — an aging condition we have long accepted as inevitable — takes on the body. Weaker muscles, weaker vision and weaker neural pathways team up to turn the simplest sidewalks into an obstacle course, while turning uneven terrain, icy driveways, and even one’s basement stairs positively perilous.
The trend is an unheralded epidemic, too often framed as an unfortunate and natural consequence of growing old. It’s too costly to overlook, though; of the 36 million tumbles reported last year, 32,000 were fatal. Millions of others led to broken wrists, hip fractures or head trauma. An initial visit to the emergency room can trigger a cascade of additional medical issues, impacting both the mobility and mental health of senior citizens.
This isn’t just a PSA to start helping more grandmas through heavy intersections. You should consider proactively bolstering your body against the risk of falls in old age, which the CDC, at least has classified as a literal “public health concern.”
Every longevity expert worth their salt delivers a similar message on podcasts and in blogs: If you want to live a longer, healthier, happier life, you have to start young. That advice can trend lofty (biohacking your sleep, adopting HIIT workouts, finding your true purpose), but taking the time to sharpen those basic things we take for granted, like…your sense of balance, is equally critical.
Fortunately, there are some steps you can take now to make sure you aren’t tripping over your steps later. Consider this your digestible, take-charge guide to combating falls in old age. Focus on these strategies now, and you’ll add years and miles to your life down the line.
Test Your Balance
Whatever your age, it helps to establish a balance baseline. That does not have to mean squatting atop a BOSU ball while clutching a kettlebell. You can begin with a dead-simple exam: Attempt to stand on one leg for 10 seconds at a time. A Brazilian study published this past June (and recently highlighted by The New York Times), found that the test is highly predictive of mortality. Of the 1,700 older adults the team of researchers assessed, those who couldn’t keep their balance were twice as likely to die in the next 10 years.
Still, you’re not doomed if you’re over 50 and wobbling two seconds into this test. It’s just a surefire sign that you should begin some form of “balance-enhancing training.” The best way to ace the 10-second test isn’t necessarily to keep trying it; that could lead to a fall in itself. (Reminder: Always have a chair or wall nearby when attempting it.) It’s to pepper your lifestyle with exercises or concentrations that naturally improve balance.
Embrace a daily constitutional
That regimen should start, at the very least, with a non-negotiable daily walk. We’ve beaten the drum on this point for years now, and for good reason. Frequent walkers are happier, more productive and generally more attuned with greenspace in their immediate area (boons, all) but they’re also just better at…walking. We’re living in a sedentary crisis of our own design. Stability starts with mobility — if you spend most of your life with your legs underneath a desk, chances are they’re going to fail you when you need them the most. Actually using your legs, core and spine is the best way to stress-test their strength and spring.
If you’re under 65, try to pepper some changes in terrain and elevation into your walks whenever possible; it will strengthen your thighs and the pathways in your brain in equal parts. It will 100% be worth the effort.
Remember to go in with a gameplan. Choose sensible parts of the day for your walks (avoid forcing yourself to hustle back for a Zoom, don’t walk when it’s so dark that you can’t spot roots or potholes in the cement), and consider getting a good pair of walking shoes. Make sure to steer clear of the “rocker” shaped, hyper-cushioned running shoes. Those look comfy (and they are), but they’re bad for walking. You want a wide, reliable base with great grip. Try commuter shoes (Allbirds), skate shoes (Vans), or lifting shoes (NOBULL).
Exercise with your age group…or don’t
Popular fitness classes for senior citizens include Tai Chi, yoga, mat Pilates and dance. Signing up for any one of them is a good idea; these are activities that emphasize the intersection between balance and breathwork, which recruit moves that would feel unfamiliar even to a 25-year-old, let alone a 75-year-old. Still, it’s understandable that the geriatric association keeps some potential trainees at bay. The problem is when that stubborness arrives at a time that it’s too late to continue other, more intense exercise, like running, cycling, lifting, climbing or just doing something grueling around the corner (sprinting stadium stairs at your local high school, for instance).
If you have no intention of adopting a gentler form of exercise, then double-down, as early as possible, on whatever exercise you’ve most enjoyed in your youth or middle-age. Start by doing more of it, so it becomes ingrained in your routine. (Don’t worry about weight loss, or a summer body. Just protect the habit at all costs.) And as the years go by, listen to your body and make the adjustments needed in order to keep it in your life. Those jolly geezers finishing marathons aren’t phenoms so much as responsible stewards of their hobby, and the recovery necessary to keep it in their lives.
If you can’t decide what you want to do to stay fit, well, just jump on the bandwagon with the rest of America and start playing pickleball. (While courts dot most retirement facilities in Florida, the sport became truly age-agnostic this summer.) Just, please, please make sure to stretch.
It takes a village
Another word on stubbornness — young men seem to have a lot of trouble going to the doctor. This creates an unexpected (and for some, an unnecessarily humiliating) crunch later in life, when they’re in and out of medical offices almost constantly. But regularly seeing professionals from early adulthood isn’t just important for identifying high cholesterol or finding a malignant mole. It also helps doctors make sense of whatever “fall history” you may already have, while potentially preventing future sprawls.
Consider: everything from medicinal side effects, to poor sleeping habits, to concussion history, to minute depreciations in sight and hearing, to a nasty habit of standing up too quickly (which plummets your blood pressure) can contribute to falls in old age. The pros are also capable of catching common culprits as they set in, like osteoporosis.
When society’s other group of unsteady walkers (toddlers) waddles around, it’s usually in a buddy system, which sometimes features ropes. But many senior citizens, out to accomplish the week’s chores, don’t have the luxury of anyone, or anything, to hang onto. This is where they should never feel afraid or humiliated to ask for help from family, friends or strangers. There is zero shame in no longer feeling equipped to shovel your driveway, especially if the alternative is a broken wrist.
Graceful aging necessitates a gentle negotiation between challenge and restraint. Trust the part of you that still wants to walk up the hill; if you cut yourself off from it too early, you’ll never get to see the view again. But when the grass is wet, or the trail’s looking messy, don’t be a hero. Put it off for another day. You should have plenty more of them.
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