An Exercise Program to Help Seniors Maintain Their Balance

by Dorian Martin Patient Advocate

Last fall, my dad had a series of falls. The first time, he tripped while carrying bags of groceries as he entered his apartment. He couldn't get to a phone, but luckily he subscribes to the Life Alert program in which he wears a necklace with an alert button that can be pressed to dispatch emergency medical teams (EMTs). And then he experienced a few more falls - once by his kitchen sink, once at my home while going up a small step, and once while getting out of his bed. It turns out his unsteadiness was caused by the pain medications he was taking; once those dosages were lowered, the falls stopped.

Luckily, Dad didn't break a bone, but his confidence in his physical abilities was almost shattered. Recently, Dad went to a workshop on managing concerns about falls. As part of the first session, Dad completed a short survey to gauge his attitude toward falling. It turns out that he marked that he agreed with the following two questions:

  • Almost every day, I think about the fact that I could fall and hurt myself.

  • There are things that I would like to do but don't do because I am afraid that I might fall.

So what can someone do to prevent falls? It turns out exercise can serve as a preventative measure in helping a senior avoid falls and also feel more secure in his or her ability to maintain balance. The Mayo Clinic website reported, "Physical activity can go a long way toward fall prevention. With your doctor's OK, consider activities such as walking, water workouts or tai chi a gentle exercise that involves slow and graceful dance-like movements. Such activities reduce the risk of falls by improving strength, balance, coordination and flexibility." People who avoid physical activity due to a fear of falling should talk to their doctor. "He or she may recommend carefully monitored exercise programs or refer you to a physical therapist," the Mayo Clinic staff said. "The physical therapist can create a custom exercise program aimed at improving your balance, flexibility, muscle strength and gait."

The Mayo Clinic provides a slideshow that describes exercises that promote balance. These exercises include weight shifts, single-leg balance, bicep curls for balance, shoulder press for balance, and side-lateral raise for balance. However, some of the exercises suggested by the Mayo Clinic would be a little too taxing for my dad, but might work for you or your loved one.

So what types of exercise could help my father regain his strength, independence, and confidence? On its National Institutes of Health Senior Health website, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) recommends that seniors incorporate four types of exercise (endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility) into their routine.

NIA advocates that seniors who have not been exercising start with as little as five minutes of activities, such as walking, raking, sweeping, and dancing. The goal is to reach at least 30 minutes of moderately intense endurance activities on most days of the week. "Doing less than 10 minutes at a time won't give you the desired heart and lung benefits," the NIA website explained.

Strength exercises are second on the list of types of exercise to embrace. "Strength exercises build muscle, and even very small changes in muscle strength can make a real difference in your ability to perform everyday activities like carrying groceries, lifting a grandchild, or getting up from a chair," the NIA website stated. Ten muscle strengthening exercises include wrist curls, arm curls, side arm raises, elbow extensions, chair dips, seated rows with resistance band, back leg raises, knee curls, leg straightening exercises and toe stands. (I recently went with Dad to a class on maintaining balance and found that many of these exercises can be done while seated in a chair.)

Balance exercises are also critical. The NIA website recommends six exercises to improve balance and lower body strength. These exercises are: standing on one foot; walking heel to toe; balance walk; back leg raises; side leg raises; and hip extensions.

Stretching exercises also have a place in a senior's exercise regime. "They give you more freedom of movement for your physical activities and for everyday activities such as getting dressed and reaching objects on a shelf," NIA reported, but added that while stretching exercises will improve flexibility, they will not improve endurance or strength. Recommended exercises include neck stretch, shoulder stretch, shoulder and upper arm raise, upper body stretch, chest stretch, back stretch, ankle stretch, back of leg stretch, thigh stretch, hip stretch, lower back stretch, and calf stretch.

Dad's not good with maintaining routines on his own, so I'm encouraging him to find an exercise program with other seniors to give him some friendly accountability. I believe that such a program will benefit him both physically and emotionally, and help him regain the many types of balance that he needs to have to live an independent life.

Dorian Martin
Meet Our Writer
Dorian Martin

Dorian Martin writes about various topics for HealthCentral, including Alzheimer’s disease, diet/exercise, menopause and lung cancer. Dorian is a health and caregiving advocate living in College Station, TX. She has a Ph.D. in educational human resource development. Dorian also founded I Start Wondering, which encourages people to embrace a life-long learning approach to aging. She teaches Sheng Zhen Gong, a form of Qigong. Follow Dorian on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram at @doriannmartin.