A Healthy Balance: Goodwin House Fitness Manager Sherry Compton on Preventing Falls

Many of us take for granted our ability to maintain our balance throughout our daily life. We rise out of bed, walk down the stairs and prepare breakfast without giving much thought to our center of gravity. As we age, however, balance and mobility problems tend to increase, as do the chances of taking a tumble. 

To learn more about fall prevention, we reached out to Sherry Compton, fitness manager at Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads

Q:  What can cause older adults to struggle with balance?

Sherry:  Balance is a complex and comprehensive process throughout the body. Many systems in the body contribute to our overall sense of balance and stability. Our vision (brain and eyes), central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), vestibular system (brain and inner ear), and our muscle skeletal system all work together to balance our bodies.

It is important for those experiencing a loss of balance to have a medical exam to determine which area is malfunctioning, as well as maintain recommended annual screenings and tests. 

Q:  What are the current statistics on falls among older adults?

Sherry:   According to the National Council on Aging’s website, one in four adults age 65 and older will experience a fall each year That’s a significant percentage of older adults and a reason that anyone 65 or older should be attentive to balance.

Although falling only once a year may sound inconsequential, the physical and financial costs can be extensive. In addition, research has shown that the probability of falling again within a year doubles after a fall. Most concerning, one in five falls cause severe injury, such as broken bones or concussions.

Q:  What are other consequences for older adults after a fall?

Sherry:  Even for those not suffering a major injury, many older adults experience reduced confidence in completing daily living activities, lose travel independence and experience decreased motivation to maintain social relationships and connections after a fall.

Q:  Can exercise help with balance and fall prevention?

Regular exercise has been shown to significantly reduce fall risk in older adults. At Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads and Goodwin House Alexandria, we offer several evidence-based wellness programs that help increase fall prevention awareness, muscle strength, coordination and flexibility. These components have been shown to improve balance and stability. One of our programs is SAIL fitness class; SAIL stands for Stay Active and Independent for Life.

Q:  What is the SAIL program?

Sherry:  SAIL is an evidence-based fitness class that helps older adults maintain balance. As a SAIL program instructor at Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads, I’ve seen firsthand how maintaining a regular fitness program can make a difference in balance. In the SAIL program we practice both dynamic and static balance exercises two to three times per week. I like to tell my participants that practice makes better! 

Q:  Are there opportunities to participate in the SAIL or other fall prevention programs in the Northern Virginia area?

Sherry:  Yes! Goodwin House, along with their partner Marymount University, received a two-year grant from the Administration on Community Living to increase the availability and accessibility of evidence-based falls prevention programs across northern Virginia. Thanks to the grant, three community-based falls prevention programs, SAIL, A Matter of Balance (AMOB) and Otago, have been implemented. You can learn more about these programs and find a location near you by visiting the Northern Virginia Falls Prevention Alliance (NVFPA).

Q:  What are some easy exercises older adults can do to improve their strength, coordination and stability in their own homes? 

Sherry:  Here are three exercises I teach in my class that have the best results:

  1. Sit to stand: this exercise begins by sitting in a chair. Participants are asked to stand and are allowed to use their hands to assist with standing. After a few repetitions, the participant graduates to standing with no assistance.
  2. Walking while turning your head slowly: participants walk slowly forward, pause and then turn their head left. After facing forward, they then take a few steps, pause and turn head to the right. The goal is to eventually take out the pause and walk while turning your head slowly.
  3. Toe raises- this simple exercise helps improve lower leg strength and can be performed sitting or standing.

These are just a few examples of exercises that help improve stability. The important factor is to be consistent and make it a practice to challenge yourself every day.

Q:  What are some common fall hazards in our homes, and how do we reduce our risk?

Sherry:  Many older adults fall in their homes or apartments and never report the incident to their care giver or physician. In fact, when members join the Goodwin House at Home program, one of the first member benefits they receive is a home assessment in order to identify fall hazards that may pose a daily threat.

Here are five tips to help reduce the risk of falling at home:

  • Make sure your home has adequate lighting and keep a light on at night.
  • Remove throw rugs. They have a tendency to bunch up making it easy to trip over them. If you have a rug that is dear to your heart, try to keep it in an area that is not used often.
  • Take the time to remove clutter, such as magazines on the floor.
  • Install proper hand rails where needed
  • Wear proper footwear even while walking around your home. The shoe should support the heel and have resistant soles.

Sherry has a Psychology degree from the University of Cincinnati and Masters of Science degree from American University in Health Promotion Management and Exercise Science. Sherry has worked in the health and fitness industry since 2000, and specifically with older adults since 2005. She has an extensive background in wellness program management and development. She is an ACE certified Personal Trainer, and a certified Active Aging Movement Coach.