The Medical Minute: Exercise helps to keep seniors safe from falls
Each day, more than 800 Americans suffer a hip fracture. Most of those fractures are due to falls, and most happen to seniors, who have lower bone density and muscle mass than the rest of the population.
That adds up to a lot of money spent on surgeries, therapy, medication and rehabilitation – not to mention huge losses in quality of life, as half of the individuals who fracture their hips will never walk independently again.
“Traditional Medicare will pay for all the bad things that happen to them, but they won't pay for an exercise program to prevent falls because there has been no study big enough to prove it works,” said Dr. Christopher Sciamanna, an internal medicine physician at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.
Sciamanna created a social, strength-training program for seniors called Band Together which uses a variety of resistance bands to help improve muscle mass and exercises to improve balance. The free program uses trained volunteers to lead participants in one-hour sessions using the bands, socializing while they strengthen their muscles together.
Although medicines can be prescribed to ward off bone loss, some of their unusual and frightening side effects have scared many away.
“There are millions of people who don't take medicine for bone loss,” Sciamanna said. “You can either make your bones stronger by taking drugs, or you can make yourself less likely to fall by exercise. Or you could do both.”
Studies have shown that seniors who participate in strength training tend to gain three more pounds of muscle per year than those who don't, Sciamanna said. Even 80-year-olds have been shown to increase their muscle strength by 100 percent after a year of regular involvement in strength training.
Aerobic activity such as walking is good for the heart – and it's also easy. Strength training can be more complicated – even intimidating – because you have to choose a certain weight resistance, know how many times to work with it, and then when to change the resistance.
“Strength training is progressive,” Sciamanna said. “If you never change the resistance, you'll never get much stronger.”
Sciamanna said it doesn’t matter whether the exercise takes place in a gym with weight machines or at home with resistance bands or other equipment. The important thing is that it works different parts of the body, and that it is progressive.
And exercise, Sciamanna proposes, is the key to keeping more seniors safe from falls: “It's important because if you can't walk without a walker, you can't really spend your golden years doing all the things you wanted to do.”
WISE research study
Get WISE about preventing fractures. Volunteers are needed for WISE, a research study for adults 65 or older who have broken a bone. The study is testing a free exercise program that can be done in the community or at home. Participants have the opportunity to test the strength of their bones and muscles, receive practical tips to help prevent falls and earn up to $150. Participation involves two visits to the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and brief phone calls.
For more information, call 844-598-9598 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Study director is Dr. Christopher Sciamanna, Department of Medicine. This research, IRB STUDY 3576, has been approved by the Institutional Review Board, under federal regulations at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, Penn State College of Medicine.
The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.
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