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How Not to Fall: Getting Fit and Standing Straight in Any Weather

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Early morning New York City—it’s 27 degrees out there. Brrrrr. And though the thermometer is inching up, prospects for above-freezing temperatures over the next five days don’t look good. Water in the parking lot behind my apartment building has pooled and frozen, creating a scarily shimmering scene—an ice skater’s delight but a treacherous trap for the rest of us.

Recently I heard a physical therapist speak on the topic of preventing falls, and he gave some serious food for thought. For instance, falls account for 87% of all fractures for adults 65 years and older. Hip fractures, 90% of which are caused by falls, cause the most deaths and lead to the most severe health problems. I was dismayed to learn that only 25% of hip fracture patients will make a full recovery. There are many risk factors, including intrinsic ones such as muscle weakness, and gait and balance disorders, and extrinsic ones such as use of four or more medications, and the home environment. The latter may include risks such as poor lighting, inappropriate footwear (shoes, not slippers are best), loose rugs, wet floors, lack of handrails, and a cluttered environment. If we keep these in mind we can lessen the risk of falls for ourselves, or friends or family members who may be at risk.

Besides modifying the home environment, strengthening the body—particularly the lower extremities—can make one less likely to fall. And did you know that walking up stairs is one of the best exercises for the lower body? Hearing this made me think of the great Carnegie libraries in New York City. Thirty-nine of these were built as New York Public Library branches and most still operate out of the original buildings. Besides the distinctive lamps outside to symbolize enlightenment, many of the NYPL Carnegie branches have two or more floors, often with spectacular staircases. Though elevators have been added in most of these, I normally eschew the elevator, and suggest you consider visiting a Carnegie library for some exercise—both mental and physical! The Seward Park Library in Manhattan and the Mott Haven Library in the Bronx are some that I have gotten particularly good exercise in.

Inspired by the presentation on falls, and a New Year’s Resolution to become more physically active, I headed for Mid-Manhattan’s Health Information Center, a voluminous collection of materials pertaining to health and fitness, to check out their resources. You might find the following especially useful, as I did:

How to Avoid Falling: A Guide for Active Aging and Independence, by Eric Fredrikson, covers all the bases on fall prevention. This book clearly communicates how to assess your personal risk factors and modify your home environment, and gives exercises for fitness, strength, and balance, all pleasingly-illustrated with line drawings. I especially liked the advice for lessening the injury if you do fall, and encouragement to do anything to prevent a fall—such as getting down on your hands and knees to crawl across an icy patch. The author is from Canada, and you know our neighbors to the north are very familiar with snow and ice!

A Morning Cup of Balance: One 15-Minute Routine for a Lifetime of Strength & Stability, by Kim Bright-Fey, is an appealing little book loaded with warmly-drawn illustrations that make the recommended morning exercises especially easy to follow. The spiral binding adds to the usefulness while one is trying to learn the routine, and at the back is a page including all movements on a single page so it just requires a glance to know what comes next. It comes with an audio CD. This author, a physical therapist, has thought of everything!

 

Fitness over Fifty: An Exercise Guide from the National Institute on Aging, gives clear instructions and large photographs for 25 of the most important exercises for endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility. The 2006 edition is accompanied by a DVD taking viewers through warm-ups and each of the exercises. Includes information on making daily and weekly schedules for yourself and charting your progress over time.
  

 

Senior Fitness: The Diet and Exercise Program for Maximum Health and Longevity is another title that grabbed my attention. The author, Ruth E. Heidrich, has a Ph.D. in Health Education, and is known by many as the other Dr. Ruth. Talk about being an inspiration—this woman, who is a vegan and a 20+ year cancer survivor, was named one of the Top Ten Fittest Women in North America by Living Fit magazine. She was 63 at the time; the other nine were all under 35. What I like best about this title is the author’s passion—I believe she can get anyone moving by her example and stirring words. Oh—and Dr. Heidrich completed her first Ironman Triathlon two years after her cancer diagnosis—and has done five since then.

So, happy stair climbing and if you meet me crawling on my hands and knees (see above), don't be surprised--just say hi!

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