The Best Exercise To Prevent Falls


Odds are, you know an older adult who’s fallen in her home. Perhaps she ended up with a few bruises, or maybe her injuries sent her to the hospital with a dislocated shoulder, broken hip, or worse. Possibly, it’s happened to you.

You’re not alone. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), a third of Americans age 65 and up fall each year. Of that group, more than 1.6 million end up in the emergency room with their wounds. "Among older adults," the NIH claims, "falls are the number one cause of fractures, hospital admissions for trauma, loss of independence, and injury deaths."

Frequently, tumbles occur for environmental reasons, like clutter or slippery floors. But they’re also likely to result from bodily factors, ranging from poor eyesight to low blood pressure to, significantly, problems with balance and strength, which worsen as we age. And while any exercise can alleviate these physical issues, new research shows that one activity could be particularly helpful to seniors in terms of averting spills: swimming.

The Evidence In October 2014, a University of Western Sydney study of 1,667 Australian men age 70-plus showed that swimmers had "significantly lower risks of falling," meaning they took 33 percent fewer nosedives than other participants, including runners and golfers. What’s more, researchers found that swimmers had less "postural sway"; they wavered less than other men when tested in a standing position, indicating better balance.

The results indicate that swimming and a lack of falls are linked, but they don't prove that swimming directly prevents falls. Still, aquatic therapists and swim teachers find there’s a noticeable difference in clients who swim, even when they do actually trip. "From what I’ve seen," says Cheryl Clark, Therapeutic Aquatic Coordinator at Sibley Memorial Hospital, part of the Johns Hopkins group, "Most of my clients, if they have a fall, usually don’t break anything. They get bruised, yes, but they don’t break anything."

Swimming vs. Other Sports It’s long been known that swimming has a multitude of health benefits for older adults. Research shows it can:

Doing a few laps has even been said to prolong life; one 2008 NIH-sponsored analysis of over 40,000 men showed swimmers had lower mortality rates than non-exercisers, walkers, and joggers. Plus, "In addition to the physical wellbeing, our mental health will be positively influenced due to increased brain circulation and relaxation," says Diane Platz, Vice President of the Aquatic Section of the American Physical Therapy Association. Until the Australian experiment, however, no significant study has compared swimming with other activities for avoiding falls.

"The really nice thing about exercising in the water is that it works all muscles of the core, arms and legs, depending on how you move in the water and how deep you are submerged," says Platz. What’s more, "Aquatic exercises will increase flexibility of our joints, as well as the strength and endurance of our muscles." That comprehensive workout is what improves your stability, perhaps moreso than running, walking, or golfing.

This is especially good news for older adults with shoulder, knee, and hip, problems. "Swimming allows flexibility of the hips—you get the flexion (bending at joints) and extension," says Clark. "Most people over 65 tend to lose that core ability."

For "the mature set," swimming may make more sense than other workouts, as well. "It’s safe for you," says Dr. Jane Katz, a former Olympic swimmer, founder of Global Aquatics, and Professor of Health and Physical Education at John Jay College in New York. "The water slows your change of pace very significantly, and you can easily right yourself [if you lose your balance]." Plus, "It’s something you can do for a lifetime, and that isn’t always the case with other sports." Training in the water alleviates joint pressure—especially on the knees—and can soothe back pain, conditions that can be exacerbated by more intense, land-based workouts. Finally, "It’s something you can do with your entire family. The grandkids will always want to see you and go swimming with you."

Start Swimming Now To get started swimming, Dr. Katz suggests first finding a venue. "The YMCA is always going to have water exercise," she says. "This time of year, there are many parks departments that have aquatics programs. Some people may have a home pool, and if they’re lucky enough, [the resources] to support a private teacher."

Once you’re situated, you can take a class or create your own regimen, every part of which can take place in the water. "The important thing is to do a warm up (walking, stretching), a main set of exercises (tai chi, yoga), and then finish with a cool-down. It should take a half-hour or so." Dr. Katz’s book, "Your Water Workout", includes quite a few workout ideas. Of course, "Have a medical check, no matter what, before you start."

Finally, to truly improve your balance, swimming should be part of an overall physical fitness plan. "It is important to understand that the forces in the water are different from those on land," says Platz, "and one should incorporate land-based exercises in addition to water-based exercises when the goal is to improve balance on land."

Whatever you decide, it pays to begin swimming post haste, because, as Platz says, "Horizontal and vertical aquatic exercise is healthy, fun and can keep you young!"



Exercise Over 50