Everyone stumbles. But for the elderly, losing balance can be dangerous and even deadly.
Falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries among older adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That’s a scary statistic, but some falls can be prevented.
“There are some things we can’t change,” Heather Shafer said of the aging process. “However, we can change the body to adapt.”
Shafer, a wellness specialist, leads FallProof classes on the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus in Omaha. The class helps older adults maintain or improve balance, which in turn helps prevent falls. It also prepares people to regain their balance — rather than hit the floor — after a trip.
“It’s just as important as cardiovascular training, strength training and flexibility,” Shafer said.
Laraine Conway of Omaha enrolled in the 12-week class in January. The 72-year-old is not fearful of falling but “thought it would be wise to be proactive.”
“I want to be challenged physically, but I want to be wise about what I do,” she said. “I’m not 27 anymore.
“This class keeps you feeling confident about your body’s ability to do things.”
Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” played softly over the speaker system as seven seniors in sweatshirts and sneakers warmed up during a Tuesday-morning class. They began with simple movements — toe taps, heel taps and side steps.
They moved to more dynamic exercises, such as mambo steps and standing hamstring curls. Shafer recommended that they touch their hands to the opposite heel for an added challenge.
Then they incorporated a balance pad. The square-shaped pad rises about 3 inches from the ground. Its spongy foam surface tests stability. The participants practiced stepping on and off the pad, transferring their weight appropriately to keep their balance.
One woman noted, “It’s harder than it looks.”
The exercise mimics stepping on or off a curb or moving from a hard surface to a soft one. That kind of change is often the culprit behind falls.
Shafer then instructed the class to walk from one end of the room to the other while looking from side to side. It’s a neuromotor exercise that forces the brain and body to work together. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that older adults exercise neuromotor skills two to three days per week.
Class participants walked on their toes, then their heels, then while squatting like a duck. All the while, they swiveled their heads from side to side. The goal was to walk forward in a straight line, despite looking all around.
To an observer, the exercises might seem simple. But when it comes to balance, if you don’t use it, you lose it.
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