Falls and Exercise

Original Editor - Jess Bel

Top Contributors - Jess Bell, Tarina van der Stockt and Kim Jackson

Around a third of all people aged over 65 years fall each year.[1] This number increases to 50% of those aged 80 years or over.[1] Risk factors for falls are varied, but they include: a history of falls, weakness, poor balance, visual impairment, polypharmacy, environmental hazards and certain medical conditions, such as arthritis, depression, diabetes and incontinence.[1]


While falling and aging are related, falls are not a normal part of aging. Nor is aging considered a cause of disability until a person is over 94 years. However, problems can arise earlier for the following reasons:

    1. Disease – 84% of which are preventable by improving diet, exercising more and adopting healthy lifestyle behaviours – these preventable diseases include cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, dementia and depression[2]
    2. Loss of fitness
    3. Negative beliefs about growing older[2]

Inactivity typically increases with age. At 75-84 years, 47% of all adults are inactive. This number increases to 70% in those aged over 85.[3] This drop in activity contributes to the huge number of falls in this age group.[2]

  • Inactivity is defined as 30 minutes or less of moderate to vigorous activity per week.[2]

Active Lives Adult Survey - CMO Guidelines

The CMO guidelines set out the minimum threshold for well-being

  • 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week
  • OR 75 minutes of vigorous exercise
  • 2 strength sessions per week
  • 2 balance sessions per week
  • Reduce sedentary behaviour[3]

These guidelines should be considered a target as many older adults are doing much less. Our aim as physiotherapists is to encourage older adults to slowly build up their activity levels to the levels outlined above.

Why Exercise?

Falls are a common reason for admission to hospital in older adults. However, the most harm occurs when a frail older adult falls. This is because “weak fallers” tend to get stuck on the floor. Exercise helps to preserve and build muscle, thus reducing the risk of falling.

The problems associated with a long lie include:

  • Hypothermia
  • Confusion
  • Tissue viability issues
  • Pressure sores
  • Dehydration
  • Hospital stay

Inactive older adults also have greater muscle atrophy. Muscle tissue usually provides padding, protects joints and preserves bone density. Thus, weak fallers tend to fracture bones more easily.

They also require more care both during a hospital stay and in the community, which adversely affects quality of life. Exercise can help to address these issues.

Comparing Exercise and Physical Activity

Physical activity refers to any activity that increases heart rate, breathing rate and energy demands.

Exercise is a more targeted activity designed to increase fitness. It can be defined as a structured form of physical activity designed to improve fitness and well-being.

It is important that a patient understands the distinction between physical activity and exercise. We need them to increase their physical activity generally, but exercise is a targeted intervention to reduce the risk of falls. An older adult needs to do both.

The Guidelines

NICE Guidelines

The NICE guidelines recommend strength and balance training should be included in a falls prevention programme. They should be individually prescribed and monitored by a trained professional. This is because exercise is dose-dependent and needs to be set at a suitable level for it to be effective.[4]

Falls and Fracture Consensus Statement

The Falls and Fracture Consensus Statement recommends that most community-dwelling older adults with a low to moderate risk of falls should participate in an exercise programme that includes strength and balance training.[1]

To be effective, this programme needs to be at least 50 hours, with two or more sessions per week.[1]  Group programmes can be supplemented with home exercise programmes.

When creating a programme, it is important that challenging balance exercises are included in order to achieve strength and balance adaptation.[1]

While walking is beneficial in general, it should not be included in programmes for older adults who have a high risk of falling, as it may result in further falls. (REF)

At the end of the 50-hour programme, the patient should be referred on for maintenance classes that suit their needs and abilities,[1]

Cochrane Review

A Cochrane Review, "Exercise for preventing falls in older people living in the community" found that exercise programmes:

  • reduce falls rate (by 23%)
  • reduce the number of people experiencing more than one fall (by around 15%)
  • and may reduce the risk of fractures (by 27%)[5]

An exercise programme must consist of mainly balance and functional exercises. This review could not determine how effective resistance exercise is in isolation and also notes that walking is not an effective strategy to reduce falls risk.[5]

Physical activity – a population strategy

How can we as physiotherapists promote physical activity more broadly?

  • Provide a variety of options for older adults
  • Encourage active travelling[6] – it is also necessary to consider practical, environmental issues like the availability of public toilets and the quality of pavements
  • Promote the benefits of physical activity on social media
  • Encourage active work places – for example, encourage the use of stairs, or cycle to work schemes. This is important as more adults of working age are showing signs of frailty/pre-frailty.[2] If we can encourage activity in working age adults, they may continue these positive health behaviours into their retirement


  1. Exercise and physical activity are complementary
  2. Variety and patient choice are key
  3. We need to maximise independence – if an older adult has greater strength, better balance and endurance, they will be more independent and their risk of falls will reduce

As health professionals we need to:

  • Promote exercise and activity at every contact
  • Be certain when we are promoting exercise – it is a very effective intervention, so we need to highlight this
  • Be careful with the language we use. For example, phrases like “young at heart”, “take it easy” or “don’t take the stairs” can reinforce the belief that exercise is harmful and only for younger people
  • Collaborate and share learning, facilities, staff and resources

For more information on the problem of falls in hospital and potential ways to address this, check out this video from Chris Tuckett:

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Public Health England. Falls and fracture consensus statement. Public Health England, 2017: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/586382/falls_and_fractures_consensus_statement.pdf
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 UK Active. Reimagining ageing. London: UK Active, 2018 (https://www.ukactive.com/reports/reimagining-ageing/)
  3. 3.0 3.1 Department of Health and Social Care, Physical Activity Guidelines: Infographics. 2019. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/physical-activity-guidelines-infographics [Accessed 3rd October 2019].
  4. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), Falls in older people: assessing risk and prevention [CG161]. Available from: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg161 [Accessed 3rd October 2019]
  5. 5.0 5.1 Sherrington C, Fairhall NJ, Wallbank GK, Tiedemann A, Michaleff ZA, Howard K, Clemson et al.  Exercise for preventing falls in older people living in the community. (Cochrane Review) Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2019; (1): CD012424 (https://www.cochrane.org/CD012424/MUSKINJ_exercise-preventing-falls-older-people-living-community)
  6. National Institute for Health Research, Moving matters: Interventions to increase physical activity. NIHR Dissemination Centre, 2019 (https://www.dc.nihr.ac.uk/themed-reviews/Moving-Matters-FINAL-WEB2.pdf)