IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Exercise helps elderly cut long-term risk of falls

Research has shown that starting an exercise program can lower an elderly woman's risk of falling, and a new study suggests the benefit can be lasting.
/ Source: Reuters

Research has shown that starting an exercise program can lower an elderly woman's risk of falling, and a new study suggests the benefit can be lasting.

Researchers found that among 98 elderly women who took part in a 6-month exercise program, the risk of suffering a fall was still reduced one year after the program ended.

In an earlier study, the researchers had found that supervised strength training and agility exercises cut the women's risk of falls by 47 percent to 57 percent. All of the women, who were between the ages of 75 and 85, had low bone mass or osteoporosis.

Falls are a major cause of disability among the elderly, and those with the brittle-bone disease osteoporosis are at particular risk of sustaining a bone fracture.

The new findings, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, suggest that exercise can help prevent falls over the long term.

One year after the exercise regimen ended, women who had done strength training -- lifting light weights and doing exercises like squats and lunges -- were still 43 percent less likely to fall than they were at the study's outset.

Similarly, women who had performed agility exercises still had a 40-percent lower risk of falling. Agility training involved games, dance and obstacle courses aimed at improving balance, coordination and reaction times.

A third exercise group, which had focused on stretching exercises, had a 37-percent lower risk of falls in the long term -- which was actually an improvement over their results at the end of the exercise program.

It's not clear why their fall risk continued to improve, while that of the other two groups worsened slightly, according to the researchers, led by Dr. Teresa Y. L. Liu-Ambrose of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

All of the women were encouraged to keep exercising after the original study ended, and those in the stretching group might have taken up other forms of exercise that are more effective at preventing falls, the researchers speculate.

Many women in the strength and agility groups said that it was hard for them to find supervised programs that were as challenging as the study regimens were. This, the researchers note, could explain why their long-range fall risk was slightly higher than it was at the end of their exercise programs.

In general, they point out, research has shown that muscle strengthening, balance training and exercises that focus on balance and agility, like tai chi, are most effective at reducing older adults' fall risk.