9 easy exercises to help you avoid falls

Daily moves to help you stay strong and stable on your feet.

Elizabeth Millard
Close up of man jogging up stairs.

Falls happen at any age, but they pose a real danger for older adults. In fact, they’re the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries among adults over age 65, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Fortunately, many slips and trips won’t land you in the doctor’s office. But they are responsible for nearly all hip fractures, notes the CDC. Falls are also the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries, according to the Mayo Clinic. 

The silver lining? Falls are not a given part of aging. In fact, it’s never too late to take steps to help you stay strong and stable on your feet. First on the list: Staying active.

Physical activity is important to reducing the risk of falls, says Sheri Saperstein, a certified personal trainer who specializes in working with older adults. Clients often share with her their fears of taking a nasty fall, she says. Sometimes, they address that fear by holding back — they limit their movements and activity.

An understandable tactic — but the wrong approach, she says. To stay steady on your feet, you need more movement in your day. That’s why she emphasizes the importance of working on your mobility.

A healthy lady on a walk
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Mobility is a bit of a catch-all term that simply means to move freely and easily. For those who are getting older, the meaning often expands to include key components for independent living, like balance, strength, flexibility and range of motion. 

Move It or Lose It Really Does Apply to Aging

As you get older, all of those essential components can begin to decline — but not entirely for the reason you think. Nope, you can’t pin this one just on the aging process.

“We often lose these attributes mostly because of lack of use,” says Saperstein. “Our bodies begin to fall into movement patterns, and we all tend to take the path of least resistance. If you stop challenging yourself, or moving in different, new ways, it becomes harder to break out of those patterns.”

Anyone dealing with an ongoing health condition may begin to notice mobility limits as well. This includes arthritis, chronic pain, diabetes, hearing or vision loss and congestive heart failure. 

But the good news is that with practice, you can begin to help get your mobility back. “Aging slows reflexes and makes joints stiffer and harder to move, which can increase the chance of falls and injury,” says Saperstein. “Keeping the body active, supple, stable and strong will aid in the ability to travel, do errands and attend appointments and events with more confidence.”

In fact, a 2016 comprehensive review of studies in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that exercise helps reduce the risk of falls in older adults by an average of 21%. And when older adults got into a routine of working out for three hours a week, there was a 39% reduction in falls. 

The current physical activity guidelines for older adults put out by the U.S. Department of Health support these findings, adding that “multicomponent physical activity programs are most successful at reducing falls and injuries.” That means finding a fitness routine that includes strength, balance and coordination training, along with moderate-intensity activities like walking. 

The key, says Saperstein, is to focus on starting slowly and progressing gradually. 

Easy Ways to Help Boost Your Stability 

To help your body stay centered, stable and safe, you have to move more. But you also need to be more deliberate in the ways that you’re moving, says Saperstein. “You want to move in ways that help you tap into muscles that can help keep you sure-footed and pain-free during everyday activities.”

She suggests peppering these moves into your day. Friendly reminder to get your doctor’s OK to exercise beforehand. This is especially important if you’re new to exercise, or are recovering from an injury or surgery. 

Morning stretch. Take a long stretch before getting out of bed: Extend your arms above your head and reach with your fingers. At the same time, point your toes. Next, point and flex your feet. End with some wrist circles, in both directions. Do each move for about 30 seconds.

Sit to stand. Practice getting in and out of a chair without using your hands, being sure to keep your feet planted firmly on the ground. (Watch a demonstration of this important exercise here.) 

Knee lifts and donkey kicks. Place one hand on a chair for support and stand tall, then lift one knee up to hip height and hold for five seconds before switching legs. Do 10 to 12 lifts with each leg. Next, try kicking your butt with one foot 10 to 12 times, then switch legs.

Pillow toss. Throw a pillow (or other soft item, like a neck roll) straight up in the air and catch it. Do this 30 times. If you have a partner or roommate, play a quick game of catch with the pillow. It’s a great way to work on hand-eye coordination, timing and reflexes. 

Arm exercises. Sit tall in a chair, hold a light dumbbell or water bottle in each hand, and do 10 to 12 bicep curls. Next, do 10 to 12 overhead presses. For each exercise, you can work one arm at a time, or do both together. 

Squeeze a ball. Hold a grip ball in one hand and squeeze it. Hold the squeeze for five counts, then release. Do 10 to 12 squeezes in each hand. Grip strength is a key determinant of your overall health.

Stand on one foot. Stand tall near a wall or piece of furniture and lift one foot off the floor. Balance for as long as you can, then switch legs. It’s OK if you need to touch the wall (or furniture) for support, but keep at this exercise until you can let go and hold yourself steady for a few seconds. 

Give yourself a pat. Stand or sit tall and pat yourself on the back, reaching toward the middle of your back, even if you can’t quite reach it now. You can alternate hands or work one arm at a time. Do 10 to 12 pats per hand. 

Some of these moves may feel a little silly, Saperstein admits, “but they can play a big part in changing your movement patterns.”

More Ways to Help Lower Your Fall Risk Renew’s “Falls and Fractures” quick tip sheet covers everything from hidden fall hazards to helpful ways to avoid breaking a bone — and more. To access this tip sheet, sign in to your plan website and go to Health & Wellness. Then look for Health Tips in the Quick Links section. Not a member? Learn more.

Don’t Forget the Power of a Good Walk

Another great activity to help improve your mobility and lower your chances of falling is simply walking more, adds personal trainer and running coach Kourtney Thomas, C.S.C.S. 

“Walking is sometimes underrated as an effective exercise, but it can be incredible for increasing your strength and improving your balance,” she says. “Plus, you can incorporate some dynamic stretching as a warmup and a cooldown and that will help with flexibility, range of motion and stability.” 

Dynamic stretching involves moving as you stretch your muscles. Some examples to try on your next walk:

  • Walking lunges: Instead of lunging in place, take a step, lunge, bring your feet together, step, lunge, and so on.
  • Arm circles: Circle your arms slowly and with control while walking. Vary the size of your circles, and be sure to circle in both directions.
  • Arm reaches: Stretching one arm up and then the other to loosen up the shoulders. 

“The more you get out there and move, and just enjoy it, the more you’ll want to do,” Thomas says. “Try new activities, new stretches, different movements and have fun. Your body will love you for it.” 

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