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Get creative with exercise for older people

A new lifestyle exercise program, which may reduce the risk of falls in people over the age of 65 years, will be launched today.
Professor Lindy Clemson, lead researcher of a new functional exercise lifestyle program, encourages creative exercise in everyday life.
Professor Lindy Clemson, lead researcher of a new functional exercise lifestyle program, encourages creative exercise in everyday life.

If you are over 65 years and have had a fall before, researchers at the University of Sydney think you should balance on one leg to brush your teeth, bend your knees to pack the dishwasher and take the stairs more often.

The exercises are part of the Lifestyle-Integrated Functional Exercise (LiFE) program. Informed by a world first study, this innovative and non traditional approach to exercise has been shown to reduce falls by more than 30% by incorporating balance and strength training into everyday activities and daily routines.

Lead researcher, Professor Lindy Clemson, from the university's Faculty of Health Sciences, claims bad balance and weak ankles and hips are the most common causes of falls in older people living in the community and in residential aged care, but many people are reluctant to do any structured strength or balance training.

"It's well known that improving balance and strength can prevent falls in older adults, but less than 10% of us regularly engage in any kind of strength training and balance is even less understood," Professor Clemson says.

"What makes our program different is that we encourage people to get creative and do balance and lower limb strength activities whenever the opportunity arises throughout their day, such as sideways walking when hanging out the washing," he says.

Professor Clemson believes the LiFE program offers some much needed challenge and complexity, believing the program will ultimately increase people's independence by allowing them to stay mobile and living in their homes for longer.

The LiFE manuals are the result of research by Professor Clemson and colleagues published in the British Medical Journal.

Researchers recruited 317 men and women over the age of 70 years, living at home, who suffered two or more falls in the past year. They compared those participating in the LIFE program to a control group doing a gentle 'placebo' exercise program three times a week, and a third group who did traditional balance and strength exercises three times a week.

Researchers have found a 31% reduction in the rate of falls for participants in the LiFE program compared with the control group.

LiFE participants also show improvements in static and dynamic balance, ankle strength, and in function and participation in daily life, suggesting the program improves both fall risk and frailty.

"The lifestyle intervention was also found to be more successful than the structured exercise program in reducing falls and there was better adherence," Professor Clemson says, adding that one woman in the study told researchers she now views her kitchen as her 'gym'.

Both participant and trainer LiFE manuals are available from Sydney University Press. People can seek support on how to participate in the program from a qualified occupational therapist or physiotherapist.

Fast 'fall' facts: 

  • One in three people over the age of 65 years suffer a fall each year.
  • If you have had a fall, you are more likely to have another.
  • Each year more than 80,000 people over the age of 65 years are hospitalised as a result of a fall.
  • Many falls can be prevented.

Read about the Alzheimer's Queensland functional exercise program recently trialled by residents diagnosed with moderate to severe dementia.

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