Walk — Don’t Shuffle

Monday, May 23rd, 2011 by American Senior Fitness Association   View This Issue of Experience!

SFA author Jim Evans is a 44-year veteran of the health and fitness industry and an internationally recognized fitness consultant. Today he offers helpful advice to a lady concerned by her recent history of falling. In addition to participating in balance training programs, there are also practical everyday measures that people can take to reduce their risk of falling. Jim explains below.

DEAR JIM: I’ve been falling frequently during the past several months, and I’m afraid I’m really going to hurt myself one of these days. Most of the time I just trip on the carpet and manage to catch myself, but yesterday I fell as I was getting out of the shower and struck my head on the toilet. Fortunately, I escaped with only a nasty bruise on my forehead, but it could have been much worse. I try to stay physically active by walking around the block several times a week, but sometimes I even trip outside on the sidewalk. What can I do to prevent losing my balance so often? I’m only 72, and I’d like to make it to my next birthday in one piece. TRIPPING IN TEMECULA

DEAR TRIPPING: Watch where you are going and pick up your feet, my dear. I assume that you have checked with your doctor to rule out any medical issues. Otherwise, you should do so right away.

It is not unusual for older adults to start dragging their feet as they grow older — shuffling, if you will. It’s a cautionary behavior intended to prevent exactly what you don’t want to happen — fall — but in fact it can often cause you to, well, fall. Shuffling involves shorter steps so your feet are closer together which gives you a shorter stability base, making you more prone to falling.

Sometimes your shoes contribute to the problem, too. Many people wear comfortable rubber-soled walking shoes or sneakers nowadays, so when you shuffle your feet, the rubber soles drag or catch on whatever surface you are walking on. The shoes are doing exactly what they are supposed to do — give you more traction — but that extra "grip" can also cause you to trip or stumble more easily when you don’t lift your feet.

Even your vision can be a factor in tripping. Many older folks look down at the ground when they walk instead of looking forward in anticipation of the next step. The rationale for looking down is, of course, so that you don’t trip over anything, but exactly the opposite happens because your vertical vision does not allow you to see what is coming in front of you. Consequently, when an obstacle of any kind suddenly appears under your feet, you cannot act quickly enough to react to it, and down you go!

According to the Centers for Disease Control  (www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/Falls/adultfalls.html), one out of three adults age 65 and older falls each year. Among those age 65 and older, falls are the leading cause of injury death. Worse, the chances of falling and of being seriously injured in a fall increase with age because we don’t bounce back like we used to — in fact, we may not bounce at all.

So, start developing different walking habits when you take your walks:

  • Look ahead in the direction you are walking.
  • Focus on lifting your feet a little higher off the ground and placing them in front of you.
  • Step forward with a normal stride.

After you have developed these new walking habits, they will become routine and you won’t have to think about them so much. Of course, be careful about walking on uneven terrain, and watch out for the usual wet spots, bumps in the road and banana peels. Also, be careful about changing directions in a hurry because sometimes your feet might not move as quickly as your brain (or the other way around) and — oops — down you go again!

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