Want to Reduce Your Fall Risk? Take a Walk
They say pride goes before a fall. If you think you’re too young to slip up, think again. Alberto Caban-Martinez, D.O., Ph.D., M.P.H., C.P.H. sees plenty of falls and fall-related injuries in younger people. As a physician-scientist and epidemiologist at the University of Miami Health System, he researches the musculoskeletal system and how it moves.
As an occupational epidemiologist and associate professor of Public Health Sciences at UHealth’s Miller School Of Medicine, his research includes preventing musculoskeletal disorders from happening in the workplace. Currently, he also researches cancer prevention among firefighters.
Dr. Caban-Martinez knew that exercise protects people 65 and older from falls and fall-related injuries. He wanted to know how to prevent them in people aged 45 to 54.
“In our lab, we explore the effects of work on human health. We were trying to understand how regular leisure-time physical activity impacts falls and fall-related injuries. The same relationship we see with the 65 and older age group holds true for the younger group: engaging in regular physical activity through the week has a significant impact on lowering falls and fall-related injuries.”
He discovered this by reviewing the long-term 2010 U.S. Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey involving more than 300,000 people aged 45 and up.
The survey found that individuals engaging in regular physical activity were much less likely to report one or more falls or one or more fall-related injuries than those who did not exercise. Activities covered in the study were walking, running, calisthenics, golf, and gardening.
Why is physical activity so good at preventing falls?
When we stay physically active, Dr. Caban-Martinez says, we’re more aware of where our body is in space and time.
“Receptors in our tissue and fascia activate sensors in the ankles, knees, and hips. If you move enough, the sensors are aware of movement.”
If you’re too sedentary, your body takes longer to regain awareness, and, “It’s easier to miscalculate where your arms, feet, and hips are in space.”
That miscalculation could lead to a slip, trip, or fall. If you’re reasonably fit, however, you could carry an armload of groceries and be less likely to fall because you’re attuned to where your body is and where you’re placing your feet as you walk. Your balance is also better. Even if you misstep and fall, you’ll regain your footing more quickly if you’re an active person.
“We know this from the elderly literature, but we’ve been able to replicate it now for middle-aged adults,” says Dr. Caban-Martinez.
Another reason older people fall more is that they lose muscle mass.
“As we age, we lose muscle girth; the muscle fibers that prevent us from falling thin out,” says Dr. Caban-Martinez.
The evidence is clear.
“It’s amazing how much 30 minutes a day of regular physical activity can reduce the chances of a fall or fall-related injury. An after-dinner walk is an opportunity to spend more time with family and an inexpensive way to reduce fall risk. If you live in an area with heavy traffic, no sidewalks, or otherwise not safe, find a well-lighted park to walk in, ” says Dr. Caban-Martinez.
Regardless of your age, staying fit helps prevent falls.
Here are some other ways to stay upright and injury-free:
Choose footwear wisely.
Wear supportive shoes, even around the house.
“Wear wide, comfortable shoes. The shoe lining is important. You need friction for good traction,” Dr. Caban-Martinez says.
Sandals, flip flops, and sloppy slippers increase your chance of tripping or falling.
Stretch and flex.
Dr. Caban-Martinez shares an idea from his research into work-related health trends among construction workers.
“In the morning, all the guys do a little bit of calisthenics before the job starts, which helps reduce injuries. Stretching and calisthenics within this 45-to-54 age group seems to protect from falls.”
And even if a fall happens, a flexible body is less appt to get injured.
Walk and talk.
Would the desk jockeys in your office benefit from a walking meeting? Dr. Caban-Martinez thinks so. “A half-hour of a one-hour meeting could be walking, with the goal of increasing physical activity at work. Find opportunities in your workflow to get active.”
Try moving the printer farther from your desk, walking to a co-worker’s office once or twice daily instead of emailing, and walking during lunch. If you sit all day at work, Dr. Caban-Martinez suggests setting reminders on your phone to get up and move every so often.
Level things out.
Make sure all surfaces inside and outside your home are as level as possible. Repair or replace broken or sagging surfaces or steps.
Consider vitamin D.
Ask your health care provider if you should take this supplement. Vitamin D helps build strong bones, muscles, and nerves.
Get a helping hand.
Install handrails and lights on staircases and steps.
Store things within reach.
Try to eliminate the need to climb footstools or ladders around your home.
“The ladder is your worst enemy,” says Dr. Caban-Martinez.
For chores such as cleaning gutters, changing light bulbs in a ceiling fan, or putting up holiday lights, have someone hold the ladder securely or hire help. Older individuals on a budget could ask a neighbor or family member for assistance.
Eliminate throw rugs (or put carpet grip or double-sided tape underneath), move electrical cords, clutter, and other trip hazards out of harm’s way.
Make sure your home is well-lighted. Use night lights or a flashlight if you get up at night. Likewise, if you walk at dawn or dusk, wear light clothing so cars can see you and use a flashlight to avoid potholes, uneven surfaces, and other dangers.
Take care of your feet.
How healthy are your feet? Could tingling, numbness, or other nerve pain cause you to miscalculate a step and fall? If so, get your feet examined. People with diabetes, in particular, need more frequent foot checks.
Know your meds.
Review your medication’s potential side effects.
Many drugs, such as sedatives, sleeping pills, tranquilizers, antidepressants, and some over-the-counter drugs, cause dizziness. If yours does, discuss solutions with your doctor – can you take the medication at bedtime or change to a different drug?
Check your vision.
Get an annual eye exam and new glasses, if necessary, and practice extra caution as you adjust to your new lenses.
Bifocal and progressive lenses may require a longer adjustment and can make items appear closer or farther away than they are. You may need a pair of distance-only glasses for outdoor activities.
Limit or eliminate alcohol.
Your alcohol tolerance may decrease as you age; too much makes you unsteady on your feet. Combined with certain medications, it increases dizziness.
Watch out for the slippery slope.
Use nonslip mats in the tub and shower and install a grab bar. If you’re 65 and older or otherwise unsteady, install one next to the toilet as well.
According to the C.D.C., 60% of falls happen inside the home, and more than one in four Americans over age 65 fall every year.
A grab bar may make you feel old, but if it keeps you out of the emergency room and living independently, it’s worth it. And if you’re a healthy, hearty 45, stay that way by staying active.
Nancy Moreland is a regular contributor to UMiami Health News. She has written for several major health care systems and the C.D.C. Her writing also appears in the Chicago Tribune and U.S. News & World Report.