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Mission Possible: Physical Activity Helps Prevent Falls

elderly person walking using a cane

You may remember the “Mission Impossible” TV series that ran from 1966 to 1973. At the start of each job assignment, a voice would say, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is … .” I admit that I was fascinated with this show in my younger years—especially figuring out how to problem-solve challenging situations.

So what does a TV show have to do with falls prevention? We have a mission! Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to stay physically active, become informed of our personal fall risk(s), and find out what steps we can take to make our homes safer and improve our overall quality of life.

Though COVID-19 has affected everyone in some way, it has had a greater impact on older adults. When senior centers, health clubs, gyms, and parks and rec programs closed, older adults were told to stay home. This impacted physical health as well as mental health. A lack of physical activity and exercise leads to deconditioning, which leads to an increased risk for falls. Additionally, social isolation leads to feelings of loneliness and lower energy. As the saying goes, “do less, feel worse.”

You might be aware of a condition called sarcopenia that is characterized by loss of skeletal muscle mass and function. Though primarily seen in older adults, it can be seen in anyone living a sedentary lifestyle. But there’s good news—you can improve muscle loss!

Progressive resistance training improves muscle strength and physical performance, thereby improving gait speed and the ability to get up and down from a chair. Physical therapists (PTs) use both measures when assessing for fall risk.

Since many older adults want to “age in place” (i.e., live in their own homes, apartments, or independent living facilities for as long as possible), community supports are needed now more than ever.

Advice from the King County Fall Prevention Coalition

The King County Fall Prevention Coalition seeks to reduce falls and fall-related injuries in older adults through community collaboration, awareness, education, and evidence-based interventions. We utilize the knowledge, wisdom, and talents of diverse professionals, including PTs, occupational therapists, nurses, a physician, an Emergency Medical Services Trauma Injury Prevention Specialist from the Washington State Department of Health, and evidence-based fall prevention program coordinators and trainers.

Last year our members attended a fall awareness health fair at Burien Senior Center and Northshore Senior Center. Physical therapists conducted fall risk assessment testing and we received a lot of positive feedback.

Retired physician Milton Curtis, a member of the coalition, developed a safety questionnaire that can be accessed online for free. The questionnaire only takes 10–15 minutes to complete and offers practical advice about actions you can take to make your home safer. Click here to get your free Senior Safety Score.

Coalition members recommend staying physically active. Following are the benefits of exercise and active lifestyle:

  • Mood improvement by reducing immune chemicals that can make depression worse. Increased endorphins, which are natural mood lifters.
  • Improved strength and balance.
  • Easier to maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Improved regularity (toileting).
  • Better sleep.

Brain health researchers are assessing the benefit of exercise to delay mild cognitive impairment in older people and improve brain function in those who may be at risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

So, what can you do?

  • Stay active. Almost everyone can do something—stretching, chair exercise, or a specific physical activity—even if you have a chronic condition. ALWAYS check with your health care provider before beginning an exercise program.
  • Indoors or out, consider marching in place. If you can walk or move about safely, walk down a hallway or outside in your neighborhood. Walking not only helps your muscles, it can also improve your respiratory health. Due to COVID, be sure to wear a mask unless advised otherwise by your health care provider.
  • If you have an assistive device such as a walker or cane, be sure to use it when walking.
  • If walking is challenging, consider sitting exercises. A PBS public television program called “Sit and Be Fit” was created in 1997 by Mary Ann Wilson, a registered nurse who specialized in the field of post-polio rehabilitation and geriatrics. The program can be done sitting or, in some cases, standing.
  • Physical Therapists (PTs) are a great resource. If you have not been exercising, talk with your health care provider about getting a PT referral and a baseline assessment. During home visits, PTs might start a client out with 5–10 sit-to-stand exercises from a chair with arm rests. These exercises are good for strengthening. You can slowly increase the repetitions if you do not experience any new pain.
  • If you try standing exercises, be sure to have a chair behind you in case you need to sit down.
  • If you have been more physically active, follow the exercise videos on Otago. Note: To decrease fall risk and for your safety, it is highly recommended that when doing Otago exercises, you have another person stand by.
  • Practice deep breathing, which can help you relax and reduce stress.

Accomplish your mission of maintaining activity and health in these unprecedented times. Though it might seem impossible, with a good team and some creativity, you can do it!

For more information about the King County Fall Prevention Coalition—which welcomes new members and community partners—e-mail KCfallcoalition@gmail.com.


Contributor Mary Pat O’Leary, RN, BSN, a planner at Aging and Disability Services, is a member of the King County Fall Coalition. She expressed thanks to Coalition members Alan Abe, EMS/Trauma Injury Prevention Specialist, Health Systems Quality Assurance, Washington State Department of Health; Dr. Milton Curtis; Tracie Baylor, PT; Paige Denison, Director of Health, Wellness & Project Enhance at Sound Generations; Josh Kelley, PT; and Kele Murdin, PT for reviewing this article and offering advice.


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