Every time you take a step, your bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons all work together in a symphony of movement to get you where you want to go. Exercise is the best way to keep functioning as smoothly as possible. It's especially important as you age, when the "notes" in your symphony of movement have a tendency to go awry. By following a healthy diet and incorporating movement into your everyday activities, you can keep your body humming.
You know about the bones that make up your skeleton. But how do other structures give you stability and strength?
When one or more of these structures becomes injured or degenerates, the others need to take up the slack, resulting in compensation of movement. There are activities you can do to reduce your risk of injury and strengthen your body's scaffolding.
Your bones are in a constant state of remodeling, with old bone continually replaced by new bone. As you age, however, the rate of bone remodeling slows as early as your 40s and is accompanied by a loss of muscle mass that may start in your 30s. In addition, soft tissues such as tendons become less elastic as you age, making them more prone to degeneration as you get older. It's a natural process — Mother Nature at work.
It's not a losing battle, however. It just means you need to pay extra attention to the exercises you do and dietary choices you make to boost your musculoskeletal health as much as you can and reduce your risk of injury. You can do this by:
Building and maintaining strength and stability in your body are important for reducing your risk of falling and preventing frailty. Older people who undergo surgery for a hip fracture, for example, are at increased risk of other health problems that are worsened by immobility, such as heart failure, as well as repeated hospitalizations.
In addition to engaging in regular physical activity to boost bone and muscle strength, the following measures can reduce your risk of falling:
Practice balancing. Changes in your inner ear, nervous system, vision and muscle mass as you age can affect your ability to balance or recover from imbalance. Your awareness of where your body is in space and on the ground is called proprioception. You can improve your balancing abilities by:
Avoid hunching. If your upper (thoracic) spine curves significantly (a condition called kyphosis), it shifts your center of gravity. With each step you take, your center of mass is different compared to someone who walks upright. Kyphosis may put you at risk of a fall.
Keep a strong core. Engage in exercises to align your head, shoulders, hips, knees and feet. A strong core is important for stability.
Stay loose. Engage in stretching exercises to improve your range of motion and reduce your risk of injury. People who are flexible are more likely to be able to recover quickly if they are about to trip.
Beware of medication side effects. Some drugs or drug combinations cause light-headedness or dizziness. Talk with your doctor about how to handle these effects if they are associated with your medications.
Create a safe home. Making sure the home environment is safe is especially important for older adults. Install grab bars in your bathrooms, secure stair railings and good lighting throughout your house. Remove throw rugs, clutter and anything else in your environment that could make you trip.
If you want to start exercising to increase your strength and stability and reduce your risk of injury but you don't know where to begin, schedule an appointment with a physical therapist, exercise physiologist or physiatrist (doctor of physical medicine and rehabilitation). They can assess your body mechanics and overall health and help you design a physical activity regimen that works for you.
This article is from the Health Connection: Movement is Medicine issue and brought to you by Community Education & Outreach.
Michael Erickson, PT, DPT, OCS, is a physical therapist at the HSS Orthopedic Physical Therapy Center.