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How to maintain and improve mobility and reduce falls

As we get older it can get more difficult to move around. Reduced mobility contributes to a range of other health problems and can affect your overall wellbeing.

Last updated: October 9th 2020
Assisting elderly lady with walking frame
Mobility problems can include unsteadiness or difficulty walking, and can lead to an increased risk of falls. [Source: Shutterstock]

Key Points:

  • Regular exercise is important to remaining mobile and keeping moving without aids, and also reduce falls and other injuries

  • Home modifications and aids can make your house safer, but should only be used when needed so you don't lose a skill or ability

  • Technology can be helpful in your day to day life and can also be a way to get immediate help if you have a fall

From a loss of independence to social isolation and not being able to do what you used to do, to stay healthy, happy and in your home longer, regular exercise is paramount!

Mobility problems can include unsteadiness, trouble getting in and out of a chair or difficulty walking, and all of these can lead to an increased risk of falls.

A number of health conditions such as joint problems, disease and muscle weakness can also create mobility challenges.

Sports and Exercise Physiotherapist, Matt Ransom, says it all comes down to the simple principle of 'use it or lose it'.

“If you don't remain active you won't be able to maintain the physical capacity that you currently have which is enabling you to stay in the comfort of your own home.

“Regular exercise has numerous benefits from physical to mental."

The most common mobility problem in older Australians is falling over. Falls can result in broken bones, bruises and longer-lasting effects like pain and soreness, limited range of movement and the fear of it happening again.

A really bad fall could mean an injury requiring mobility aids such as a walker or wheelchair and can even lead to death, so fall prevention is very important.

Regular exercise

To keep mobile, staying active through regular exercise is ideal. At least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a day is recommended, with a focus on aerobic and muscle strength. It is worth checking with your doctor before increasing your activity.

You don't have to go to a gym to get moving. Exercise can also be incidental, for example when you're walking around the supermarket, mowing the lawn or dancing.

If you already have mobility difficulties there are low impact or light activities you can continue to do such as walking, yoga, pilates, stretching or swimming.

Regular stretching and bodyweight exercises help develop and maintain muscle strength, a key component of staying mobile. A range of stretching and exercise programs can be found on the internet or prescribed by your physiotherapist, who works to ensure you stay mobile.

"Physiotherapists are ideally suited to something like this as they have an understanding of your functional capacity,” Matt says.

“They will be able to assess your current mobility and function and prescribe an exercise program of gradual difficulty," he adds.

Multiple benefits

Improved mobility isn’t the only benefit of physical activity. Staying active through regular exercise helps reduce fractures by improving bone strength.

It also increases energy levels, helps you maintain a good weight, regulates blood pressure, prevents cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, helps manage arthritis, reduces anxiety or depression, improves sleep and increases self-esteem.

Exercise is also a great way to socialise. Joining a sporting club or social group, like bowling, badminton, tennis, or walking group, means you’ll not only get your daily exercise in, but you make friends and have fun while doing it. Your local council will have information on activities and exercise groups in your community.

You’ll also find classes or groups within your community which focus on fall prevention, maintaining your balance and flexibility and improving your muscle tone and strength.

"There's numerous community falls and balance classes that exist which are created for older Australians to help improve muscle strength, balance and coordination,” Matt explains.

“These classes also have a social benefit."

Home modifications

If you need help getting around your house safely you may need some home modifications, like grab rails, however, it is important to only use this extra help when it’s truly needed.

"Relying on gait aids such as a walking frame, walking stick or mobility scooter before deemed necessary can have a negative effect on your mobility into the future,” Mr Ransom says.

“It is important to keep moving and maintain regular exercise in order to ensure your mobility.”

A range of modified sports and exercise programs and facilities are available to older Australians so you can enjoy staying active in a safe, low impact environment. You will find these activities at local community centres, sporting clubs and senior clubs such as your local RSL or contact your local council.

Top Fall Prevention Strategies

There are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk of falls in and around your home.

Keep clear

Trip hazards are one of the big causes of falls in the home. Try and have defined walkways that are kept clear of furniture and other obstacles like electrical cords.

Rugs and mats can also slip and cause falls, so if possible you should consider removing them altogether. If you’d rather keep your favourite rug around you should make sure it sits flat to the ground, is secured so it doesn’t slip, and contrasts against other surfaces around it.

Get the right advice

The best solution for you will be one that’s unique to your home. Things like lighting and handrails can make a huge difference in making stairs and other high-risk areas safer, but it’s important to get things right.

An occupational therapist (OT) can help with a household assessment and provide expert advice on what you might need. Once you’ve worked out what you need, make sure the work is carried out by a licensed professional. After all, a handrail will only help you if it stays secured to the wall.

Mix and match

Don’t be afraid to combine different falls prevention strategies together, it can make a big difference. For example, you could use a shower chair, a hand rail, and a handheld shower hose all at once in the shower to make things safer. However, it’s important you make sure to get the right advice before buying or using a chair or any other item.

Keep things organised

Organisation is key. Make sure chairs and other household items are returned to their right spot after use. Objects like shoes and bags which are left on the floor can become trip hazards, so make sure they get put away.

Use technology to keep in touch

If you or a loved one is at risk of a fall it’s vital they can alert others that they require assistance as soon as possible.

Emergency pendants are available that can detect if someone has had a fall and contact emergency contacts. There are also pendants and mobile phones available that can be programmed with emergency contacts and will ring until somebody answers them. An OT can help with what device might help you best.

Keep the phone handy

If you don’t want to wear a pendant or have your mobile phone on you at all times, make sure a phone is kept on a low table or similar, rather than mounted out of reach on the wall. That way in case of a fall you will still be able to get in contact with someone.

If there is a fall, call for help

If you find someone who has had a fall it’s best not to try and lift them. You should assess them without trying to move them and call 000 immediately. If there is a stable chair nearby you may wish to bring this closer so the person can pull themselves onto it if they are able.

Fall prevention tips supplied by Vision Australia.

Do you have any tips for reducing your risk of a fall? Let us know in the comments below.

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