Flexibility, Balance, and Preventing Falls
Research shows that falls are responsible for a high rate of disability and death in people age 65 years and older. In one year-long study, for example, falls accounted for almost 12,000 deaths, 70 percent of which were among the elderly.1 In addition, data show falls are more common in people who are in poor health.2 For these reasons, staying fit and healthy can help keep you from falling and increase your odds for longevity.
In addition to removing obstacles that can contribute to falling
such as slippery surfaces, unstable footwear, loose rugs,
faulty stair rails, and uneven or steep stairs,
flexibility is key to maintaining good balance
and helping prevent falls.3
Research shows that stretching helps strengthen muscles and increase flexibility — benefits that are critical to balance and stability that help guard against falling. In particular, flexibility of the large muscles on the top and back of the legs between the knees and hips (quadriceps and hamstrings) as well as mobility of the hip joints, ability to balance when you are standing still (static balance), and strength in the lumbar spine all contribute to balancing when you move (dynamic balance).4 In addition to helping keep you flexible and fit, stretching boosts circulation needed for being aware and alert (cognition) that also can help prevent falls.5
To stay or become more flexible, it’s important to stretch regularly (several or more times a week) whether you exercise or not. If you are an exerciser, you are likely to find it easier to stretch after your workout when your muscles are warm.
To get the most from stretching:
- Vary your stretching exercises each day to include all muscles
and evenly distribute strength and flexibility throughout your core, upper body, and lower body
- Begin with good posture by standing as tall and straight as possible
- Take slow, deep breaths to open your posture
- Stretch gently, easing and relaxing into each stretch
- Focus on aligning your joints properly to avoid injury
- Stretch only until you feel mild discomfort, do not overstretch
- Hold each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds, do not bounce
- Repeat each stretch 2 or 3 times
- Continue breathing deeply and slowly throughout each stretch
- Exhale as you move deeper into each stretch
- Do not hold a painful stretch
In addition to traditional floor-stretching exercises, aquatic stretching, Pilates, tai chi, chair yoga, and traditional yoga are ideal for strengthening muscles, improving balance, and increasing flexibility.
- Aquatic stretching and flexibility exercises can include many of the same stretching techniques used in traditional floor stretching routines. Because it eliminates pressure on the joints, aquatic stretching is especially good for people with chronic joint pain from arthritis, osteoporosis, and osteopenia. It’s also ideal for people who are recovering from joint replacement or reconstruction surgery. If you are overweight or obese, aquatic stretching is a good place to begin getting fit because it promotes flexibility without unnecessary wear on the joints
- T’ai chi ch’uan (tai chi), a Chinese martial art, involves slow, gentle, repeated movements focused on coordination, relaxation, balance, deep breathing, and meditation. Tai chi is suitable for people of almost all fitness levels. Whereas athletes can supplement vigorous workouts with calming tai chi sessions, novice exercisers can begin a new path to fitness with tai chi
- Pilates is a total-body conditioning exercise that focuses on muscle strength, flexibility, and endurance. The goal of Pilates is to ensure strong muscles, a lean frame, good coordination, good posture, and balance (stability). It is a low-impact way to build overall strength, emphasizing the use of core (abdominal, back, and hip) muscles, spinal/pelvic alignment, and breathing
- Chair yoga is a modified, gentle form of yoga in which you can sit on or stand beside a chair for support. Although it’s ideal for people who cannot easily get up and down, have difficulty balancing without the help of a support object, and who cannot engage in traditional yoga, chair yoga can benefit anyone
- Yoga combines breathing techniques, meditation, certain poses and postures, strength-building exercises, and flexibility exercises for physical health and psychological well being. Most people who participate in yoga are relatively fit. If you are older and new to yoga, begin with a chair yoga class to gradually build strength, increase flexibility, and prepare you for more advanced yoga classes
If you are sociable, classes in aquatic stretching, Pilates, tai chi, chair yoga, yoga, and traditional floor stretching give you the opportunity to work on flexibility while making friends. Summit Medical Group offers tai chi, chair yoga, and basic yoga classes. Local gyms, senior centers, retirement centers, and adult care centers also often offer a variety of stretching classes. Pilates, tai chi, chair yoga, yoga, and stretching DVDs and YouTube videos also can allow you to enjoy stretching conveniently in the privacy of your home.
Many gyms offer aquatic stretching, Pilates, and yoga classes that vary in difficulty and duration. Before signing up for a class, be sure to ask the instructor which one is right for your fitness level.
Most experienced aquatic stretching, Pilates, tai chi, yoga, and traditional stretching instructors will ask about any health issues that might limit certain movements. If you are starting a Pilates, tai chi, chair yoga, or yoga class, be sure to tell the instructor if you are living with any health issues, including balance problems, chronic pain, arthritis, osteoporosis, osteopenia, high blood pressure, fatigue, carpal tunnel syndrome, forgetfulness, and depression and anxiety. The more your instructor knows about your unique health issues, the better able he or she will be to ensure your safety and help you achieve your balance and flexibility goals.
Whether you stretch at home on your own, take stretching classes, or combine classes with an independent stretching program, make stretching part of your daily routine. Stretching 20 to 30 minutes each day can help you maintain strength and flexibility to protect your overall health.
1. National Safety Council. Accident facts and figures. 1983. Chicago, IL.
2. Droller H. Falls among elderly people living at home. Geriatrics. 1955;10:239-244.
3. Nickens H. Intrinsic factors in falling among the elderly. Arch Intern Med. 1985;145:1089-1093.
4. Martinez-Lopez E, Hita-Contreras F, Jimenez-Lara P, Latorre-Roman P, Martinez-Amat A. The association of flexibility, balance, and lumbar strength with balance ability: Risk of falls in older adults. J Sports Sci Med. 2014; 13:349-357.
5. Shubert TE, McCulloch K, Hartman M, Giuliani C. Effect of an exercise-base balance intervention on physical and cognitive performance for older adults: a pilot study. J Ger Phys Ther. 2010;33:157-164.