Preventing illness and injury are a big part of staying healthy. We monitor our blood pressure, watch for suspicious moles, check our cholesterol and conduct self-exams important to early cancer detection.
Yet, relatively few understand how to prevent falls, one of the most common and devastating events for older adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 36 million falls are reported among older adults each year. One of every five of those falls causes injury, such as broken bones and head injuries.
“Gravity wants to do everything it can to put us on the floor,” says Al Peraza, PT, DPT, Physical Therapist, Physical Rehabilitation Services, Dignity Health, Yavapai Regional Medical Center (YRMC). “We rely on our body’s systems to keep us standing. That’s why it’s important that these systems function at their very best.”
Peraza works with patients individually at YRMC’s Physical Rehabilitation Services to help them strengthen their balance. He also teaches “A Matter of Balance” classes in the community. Co-sponsored by YRMC and the Area Agency on Aging, Northern Arizona Council of Governments (NACOG), “A Matter of Balance” helps older adults improve their balance and enjoy life without fear of falling.
During this episode of “Healthy Conversations,” Peraza demonstrates balance-building exercises using simple tools and the easiest way to get back on your feet if you take a tumble. You’ll also learn how your body works to keep you standing, in spite of gravity.
Watch your step!
What systems do we rely on to keep us standing? Peraza, who has practiced as a physical therapist for more than 30 years, points to the triple-balance protection of our:
- Vision – Ask most anyone over the age of 60 and they’ll describe how their eyes are changing: Reduced ability to see in the dark, narrowed field of vision and diminished depth perception, are common to aging and can make you more prone to falls.
- Inner ear (vestibular system) – The job of this hard-working system is to support the head and body for optimal vision, hearing and movement. However, many older adults experience dizziness and falls related to inner-ear disorders. Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) – among the most common – happens when the tiny calcium crystals that help us sense gravity become dislodged from the inner ear. Peraza and other YRMC physical therapists perform a technique that returns ear crystals to their place and stops the spinning.
- Somatosensory system – Diminished muscle mass and poor health can compromise balance. The healthier the receptors in your body’s joints are, the more effective they are at receiving information from your brain, and the better your balance. “Exercise strengthens your muscles and provides greater stability at the various joints that hold us up,” notes Peraza.
Exercise your way to better balance
A combination of fun activities and regular exercise can improve your balance. Gardening, pickle ball, hiking and even dancing are good ways to improve balance. Aerobic exercise – walking or riding a stationary bike – and weight-training will bolster your strength and balance. YRMC’s Adult Fitness program offers fitness classes and individualized exercise plans to help you get started.
“I tell my patients that life is movement,” Peraza says. “It’s very important that we move to keep our body’s systems in their best condition.”
Walk with everything you’ve got
The quality and pace of walking is also key to preventing falls. Peraza describes good quality walking as lifting your feet, moving your head from side-to-side, swinging your arms and moving your entire body. Normal walking speed is approximately 1.1 meter per second (3.7 feet per second).
“Walking speed is now considered a vital sign,” says Peraza. “It’s almost as important as our blood pressure, heart rate and other vitals. As walking speed declines, falls increase. Research shows that older adults who walk too slowly are more likely to be hospitalized or discharged to a skilled nursing facility.”
To learn more about YRMC Physical Rehabilitation Services visit us online or call (928) 771-5131. For information about the award-winning, evidence-based program, “A Matter of Balance,” contact the Area Agency on Aging – Prescott Office at (928) 775-9993.