Mobility is essential to living your life with happiness, energy, and purpose. As we age, mobility becomes more challenging with the onset of physical, emotional, and social limitations. It’s something that happens gradually over time until one day you find that getting around is a lot harder, and the risk of falling, a lot higher.
Initial warning signs might be something small like getting up from the sofa isn’t as easy as it used to be, or you notice yourself walking at a slower pace or with an uneven gait.
Most worrisome is the endpoint for an unchecked decline in mobility: an older adult suffers a fall just about every second of every day in this country, says the CDC, and falls are the leading cause of death in this age group.
The clearest example of this is the pandemic, which led to a rapid decline in mobility, especially in older adults. The decline in daily movements, coupled with never leaving the house for months on end, led to a decline in muscle mass — which then led to reduced strength, balance, and flexibility. As a result, there was a marked increase in challenges to everyday living, and healthcare providers saw a sharper rise in falls at home.
Even worse, extensive research over the years has shown that a downward spiral can eventually include challenges in daily living (dressing and bathing activities); higher rates of depression and cognitive lapses; and worsening of chronic disease like arthritis or diabetes.
Mobility Can be Improved with Early, Professional Intervention
Your health care provider (HCP) will assess your mobility at your well visits. If you notice changes in between appointments, it’s important to report those changes to your HCP, so that they can address them immediately.
Early intervention is key to reversing problems and promoting better mobility. Your HCP may ask whether you’ve fallen in the past year or if you worry about falling. In addition, expect some of these tests at your next appointment:
Changes in the speed or pattern of your gait such as the way you walk–can be a sign of mobility trouble. Older age brings a slight to moderate reduction in the speed and length of your stride. An HCP will time you as you walk several feet across a room. Walking quickly is a good sign. A halting or shuffling gait can signal a problem.
The “Timed Up and Go” (TUG) Test
This is a fast and reliable diagnostic tool. You sit in a chair and stand up to walk about 10 feet in a line; then you return to your chair and sit down. Completing the task in less than 12 seconds is a good sign. Taking 12 seconds or longer indicates a problem and risk of falling. Further red flags include shuffling, wobbling, or failing to swing your arms while you walk.
This assessment evaluates how you step over an obstacle, pick up a pencil from the floor, or remove a jacket, for instance.
Activities of Daily Living
Your HCP may ask you how you handle activities of daily living (ADL), such as bathing, dressing, and cleaning. Any adjustments in your routine—like holding on to a loved one’s hand to stand up or sitting on a chair in the shower—will be evaluated.
Range of Travel
Your HCP may ask about how much and where you travel. Do you go to the grocery store? The homes of friends or family members? Worship services? A healthy amount of traveling in your everyday life is a good sign.
Ways to Address Mobility Impairment
Once your level of mobility is properly assessed, your HCP will make recommendations, including a referral to a physical therapist. They may also suggest helpful things like a cane or walker to assist with safer, more balanced mobility, or a medical alert system with fall detection technology for added protection against dangerous falls.
Physical therapists address each specific limitation and target interventions appropriately. Extensive research shows that PT exercise plans help to reverse problems and improve mobility, particularly when adopted as an early intervention. They also tend to emphasize resistance, balance, and gait training exercises.
Tips to Improve Mobility and Stave Off Infirmity in Seniors
Below are some exercises that promote mobility in the areas of strength, balance, weight, metabolism, heart, bones, joints, and mood. Ask your HCP for advice on how these can become integrated into your life. A referral to a PT may be in order.
The basic act of walking is considered the most effective strategy for maintaining mobility and independence. According to the CDC’s Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 150 to 300 minutes of moderate exercise a week with activity every day, is recommended. Practicing heel-to-toe walking also helps to maintain a healthy gait. Walk slowly as if you’re walking on a balance beam or tightrope to practice this.
Strength Training Exercises
Do arm curls with handheld weights or try push-ups against a wall. For the latter, stand in front of a wall and put your arms out in front of you and your palms against the wall. Take a step back and keep your feet shoulder-width apart. Draw yourself closer to the wall, and push back out again, and continue in this manner of push-ups.
To strengthen your thighs and buttocks, try a hip extension: Stand upright with your legs straight and feet shoulder-width apart. Extend both arms out in front and hold on to a sturdy chair or table. Keep the right leg straight and lift the left leg backwards without bending the knee. Hold the position for several seconds. Next, lift the right leg backwards and do the same.
Practice Sitting to Standing
Put a sturdy chair against a wall. Sit at the front of the chair with your knees bent and feet on the floor slightly apart. Keeping your shoulders straight, stand up slowly using your hands as little as possible. Slowly sit back down and repeat this exercise several times. You can also practice standing up more quickly but be sure to sit down slowly every time.
Dynamic stretching exercises improve flexibility, balance and mobility. Improve ankle mobility by standing tall next to a wall; place one hand on the wall for support. Slowly rock forward onto your toes, coming into a tip-toe position. Slowly rock back onto your heels, lifting your toes off the ground. Repeat several times.
Protect Yourself Against Accidents and Falls with a Medical Alert System
In addition to these exercises, wearing a Lifeline medical alert system as part of your mobility armor can help add peace of mind. It provides emergency help should you ever fall, minimizes the fear of falling, and helps you to maintain independence.
If you are worried about a fall due to impaired mobility, it’s important to consider adding automatic fall detection to your Lifeline medical alert system. If you are unable to press your button, the system’s automatic sensor technology detects your fall, and a Trained Cares Specialist will contact you immediately through the system’s two-way speaker. Even if you cannot speak, our Trained Care Specialists will contact you to assess the situation and send the appropriate help.