Don’t be the Fall Guy

Falls are the greatest health risk for most older adults. Here’s how to protect yourself.

Every second, someone age 65 or older suffers a fall, making it the No. 1 cause of injury-related death in this age group. According to the CDC, about 20% of falls in adults lead to life-altering changes, primarily from broken bones or head injury.

“The best way to protect yourself is to address the three main physical conditions that contribute to falls: weak stabilizer muscles, poor core strength, and balance issues,” says Carina O’Neill, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

Stabilizer muscles. The stabilizer muscles keep you upright and allow you to easily change directions. Two essential stabilizers for fall prevention are the gluteus medius (located on the side of the hip) and the gluteus maximus (the largest buttock muscle). “These work both together and independently to allow us to stand upright and stabilize the back and pelvis as we move during activities,” says O’Neill.

Core strength. Core strength is vital for fall prevention, as your body’s core is the epicenter from which every movement revolves. “As we walk, our bodies constantly have to adapt to ever-changing ground levels,” says O’Neill. “Adequate core stability and strength help you better react to these sudden changes and prevent potential falls.” The core consists of several muscle groups: the rectus abdominis (the “six-pack” or “abs”); the obliques, located on the sides and front of your abdomen; and the transverse abdominis muscles, which lie under the obliques and attach to your spine.

Stabilizer and core muscles weaken over time as men naturally lose muscle mass, a condition called sarcopenia. “These muscles further weaken from a sedentary lifestyle or when people follow a regular exercise program that neglects these areas,” says O’Neill.

Balance. Sense of balance naturally wanes over time, as do reflexes and coordination. This makes it easier to topple and harder to catch yourself if you do have a misstep. Another cause of poor balance is deterioration of the inner ear’s vestibular system. It feeds information to the brain about motion, head position, and spatial orientation, and it, too, becomes less effective as we age.

Defense is the best offense when it comes to fall prevention. “Take steps now to address areas that place you at a higher risk for falls,” O’Neill advises. Here are some strategies for shoring up your stabilizer muscles, core strength, and balance.

One of the best ways to improve balance is practicing Reformer Pilates. While all Pilates consists of slow controlled movements focusing on weight distribution and proper rotation, Reformer Pilates supports the limbs, allowing stress-free focus on the core. Numerous studies have supported its use to improve balance and coordination and reduce fall risk among older adults and others at high risk for falls, like stroke survivors.

By first understanding what balance is, you can take the appropriate steps to improve your balance. Balance is largely an automatic reflex. And as you move into your 50s and 60s, you may notice yourself becoming less stable.

Loss of muscle mass, slower reflexes, and worsening eyesight can affect your sense of balance. Certain health problems — such as inner ear disorders, hearing loss, heart rhythm disturbances, and neuropathy (nerve damage that causes weakness, numbness, and pain) — may upset balance, too. And shaky balance can lead to a downward spiral.

Pilates is for anyone who has experienced the fear of falling and craves more stability.