Falling is probably the last thing on anybody’s mind when you are young and fairly fit. We take walking around for granted, without a thought of possibly landing up face-first in a gutter, at the bottom of an escalator, or in a mud puddle. Although this can happen at any age.

But your composure can be severely compromised once you have experienced a bad fall, or you have developed osteoporosis. You become aware of your bones and their delicacy, and the importance of keeping them whole and strong. Things like uneven steps and gravel paths take on the danger of a minefield. Whereas before you flew, now you mince. In fact, fear of falling can become so powerful that some people may fear going out, or walking at all.

This anxiety is not without reason because most people fall at some time in their lives. It’s just part of being human – as many famous people can attest. Falling is embarrassing enough, but when you have a hundred cameras on you, it becomes a slip that conversely can make you appear more human. And what would slapstick comedy be without someone falling?

Ways to prevent falls

But falling can be a serious business – and while you must be extra vigilant as you grow older, there are some very sensible and easy practices you can bring into your life to protect yourself, and make falling less of a risk.

Look where you’re going

This sounds so simple, but the number one reason people fall is precisely because they are not looking where they are going. Uneven paving, tree roots, unexpected variances in ground levels, steps, grass, etc – all of these and more can suddenly throw you off balance.

Check your home for hazards

If you look around your home you might be astonished at how much there is that can trip you up: loose rugs are the devil; trailing cables from heaters or computers or the television can take you down at any time; poor lighting is a biggie, so don’t go saving electricity at the expense of being able to see properly as you get around – put that bathroom light on if you need to go to the loo in the middle of the night.

Check your eyes regularly

Poor eyesight is a key problem, especially when trying to look where you’re going. If you can’t see properly you might miss a step or a broken branch on your patch, or any obstacle that can quickly trip you up. So get tested regularly and ensure you have good glasses.

 Beware the effect of medications

Some medicines can cause drowsiness or lack of concentration, or make you feel faint. Losing control of your balance is a high risk factor when taking certain medications. Check the ramifications with your doctor and perhaps adjust the dosages to keep you from confusion and stumbling. Mostly, be aware if you feel a specific medicine is changing control of your balance, and take steps to rectify this.

Wear sensible shoes (this for the ladies)

This might seem obvious as you grow older. You can hardly teeter about in stilettoes as you did when you were 20 – your legs and ankles are weaker and more brittle, controlling your balance will be hugely tested in high heels. Go flatter, more comfortable and more secure with straps and non-slip soles.

Exercise to strengthen the body

Inarguably, exercise is a key factor in maintaining independence and keeping us steadily on our own two feet. Exercise challenges the bones and muscle structure to strengthen balance – and anything that builds greater power in our leg muscles, can certainly help to reduce the risk of falling. There are many different exercise activities such as Tai-Chi, dancing, yoga, walking, gardening, and even housework. Classes aimed specifically at strengthening and balancing are available in most areas. Investigate where you can go to engage.

Particular exercises that are prime for balancing and which you can do at home

Exercising to improve balance doesn’t have to be a major effort. You don’t even have to go to classes – although its more fun that way – you can do your own exercises at home in a matter of minutes.

  • Heel lifts: Hold on to the back of a chair and simply lift your heels. Then slowly drop down again. Repeat standing on your toes ten times.
  • Toe raises: Hold your chair, keep feet flat to the floor, then pull up your toes. Pull up and lower ten times.
  • One leg stand: Keep a hand on your chair and lift one knee up. Remain like that for a count of ten, then let go of the chair and try to remain standing on one leg for another count of ten.
  • Sit and stand: Sit in a comfortable chair, cross your arms across your chest, and then stand without using any aid. This might be tricky at first, but work at it until you are rising to your feet without pushing up with your arms. This will strengthen your legs. Begin slowly with just three rises if you can, and work up over a couple of weeks until you reach 8 or 10 rises. This is not an easy one to begin with, so make sure the chair behind you is a soft one, and perhaps have someone with you to give you encouragement and a helping hand to start the process.

Love your bones! But don’t make it too easy for them. Give them some work to do, and they’ll be your friends for life.

NOFSA (National Osteoporosis Foundation South Africa)

NOFSA is the only non-profit, voluntary health organisation dedicated to promoting lifelong bone health. We focus on reducing the widespread prevalence of osteoporosis while working to find a cure for the disease, and by supporting research and developing programmes of education and advocacy.

Find out more about our work at: www.osteoporosis.org.za