Karen Mickle, a post-doctoral research fellow at Victoria University, has developed a unique exercise program that not only increases foot strength but also improves balance and foot health in older adults.
Toes assist us when we are walking, providing balance, weight-bearing and thrust during the gait, but in older adults Dr Mickle found toe strength decreased by about 20-25 percent compared to young adults.
“The strength of your toes is a greater predictor of future falls than many other risk factors,” says Dr Mickle. “People with weak toes and toe deformities are twice as likely to fall over.”
She points out falls are a devastating health, social and economic problem and are the leading cause of injury, disability, hospitalisation and death for older adults.”
According to one study, falls account for 47.6 percent of hospital treatment costs of injury in Victoria with an annual figure of around $383.7 million.
Dr Mickle identified that a reduced strength of the muscles that flex the toes is one of the strongest independent contributors to falls in older adults.
Yet despite this evidence, no previous research has investigated whether a dedicated exercise program designed to strengthen the toe flexor muscles can reduce the rate of falling in older adults.
To study this further, she developed a series of exercises using resistance bands to restore strength. Participants who attended classes three days a week for 12 weeks increased their toe strength by an average of 36 percent.
As well as strengthening muscles, the exercises also helped with the general health and function of ageing feet – but potentially could also benefit with diabetes or other foot problems.
“If normal foot function can be restored in individuals who suffer foot pathologies, we may reduce the risk of falls and foot pain and therefore improve independence and quality of life,” Dr Mickle says.