How Physical Therapy Can Help Seniors with Balance

Apr 7, 2021

Kaitlin Adams

by Kaitlin Adams
PT, DPT | North Phoenix Location

Why should senior citizens perform balance exercises?

Consider this scenario: Mary is 76-years-old and lives alone in a single-level home. She recently had 2 near-falls but was able to steady herself. Her children provided her with a Life Alert and encouraged Mary to keep her cell phone on her at all times. This ended up being good advice because she recently tripped over a throw rug and had to call 911. At the hospital, x-rays revealed Mary had suffered a hip fracture. She needed surgery and is now very fearful of falling again. Because of this, her physician referred her to a physical therapist to help improve her balance and overall mobility.

Chances are, you know someone who has been in this situation, or is at a risk for this happening to them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every three adults over 65 years old fall each year.  However, older adults fall for different reasons.

5 Causes of Loss of Balance in Seniors

1. Balance and Gait: As people age, they lose some of their balance abilities and can become very unsteady. Some older adults may lose their balance while reaching overhead to get something from a high cabinet or while trying to get in and out of the shower. As a response, older adults can subconsciously alter how they walk to feel steadier.

2. Muscle Weakness: We often become more sedentary as we get older. Weaker muscles, especially in the lower legs and trunk, can increase someone’s fall risk. Decreased endurance and flexibility restrictions can also increase someone’s risk of falling.

3. Medication Side Effects: The type of medication a person is on, as well as how many medications they take, can affect their balance and mobility.  Certain medications have side effects such as dizziness, confusion, fatigue, and lowered blood pressure that may increase the risk of falls. The synergistic effect caused by taking multiple medications can also further potentiate side effects.

4. Chronic health conditions (such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, dementia, and arthritis):  Signs and symptoms of certain health conditions can impact an individual’s stability, and cause issues such as shortness of breath, joint pain, and neuropathy.

5. Visual Impairments: As we age, our vision changes; causing poor visual acuity, decreased depth perception, and difficulty detecting contrast.  Certain medical conditions such as glaucoma, macular degeneration, and cataracts can also negatively affect someone’s vision, increasing their fall risk.  Even the use of bifocals or trifocals can contribute to a fall risk!

How Balance Physical Therapy Can Help

Many falls are potentially preventable and physical therapy can be very helpful in improving someone’s general mobility and stability.  An important factor in treating balance impairments and working on fall recovery is determining the cause of the deficiency.  A physical therapist will likely have each patient complete a balance assessment during their initial evaluation to determine specific balance deficits and what may be causing a person to fall or become unbalanced.

A physical therapist will assess a patient’s gait (how a person walks) and determine if they would benefit from using an assistive device such as a cane or walker.  If the patient is already using an assistive device, it is important to make sure it is the proper height and is being used safely, consistently, and effectively.  The physical therapist may also review different strategies and techniques that can be used once a person falls and is unable to get off of the floor independently.

Another important factor in preventing future falls is to strengthen the patient’s core and legs.  Physical therapists create customized exercise programs to address specific factors that increase the risk of falling. Some exercises can even be done in a chair or on a mat.  Before a person is discharged from physical therapy, the therapist will provide the patient with a list of home exercises to continue performing on their own.  Additionally, many insurance plans now participate in fitness programs for active older adults, such as SilverSneakers, that allow adults to continue working on their strength and mobility.

Top 3 Beginner Exercises for Improving Balance

1.Single Leg Balance:

Balancing on one leg can help improve your strength, stability, and body awareness, all in one exercise. To perform it correctly, stand on a surface, bend one of your knees, and squeeze the buttock of your standing leg.
Be careful that your legs do not touch and try not to hold on to anything with your hands.

2. Ankle Sways:

There are three strategies for balance, and our ankle strategy is the first line of defense against falling. This is a great neuromuscular activation activity to improve your ankle strategy.
Stand with your feet together or with one foot in front of the other (tandem). Slowly, move your weight forward and backwards or side‐to‐side. Be careful not to bend at your hips and only move at your ankles.

3. Standing Hip Abduction:

This is a multifaceted activity that improves your balance and strengthens your gluteus medius, a vital hip muscle necessary for daily mobility.
Stand with your feet together, lift one leg out to the side without touching the ground, then return to your starting position.
Be careful not to lean your torso.


The physical therapists at Foothills Sports Medicine are trained to assist you in recovering from a fall or preventing a future injury.  If you feel that you have balance deficits or are fearful of falling, talk to your physician to determine if physical therapy would be beneficial for you! Our dedicated healthcare professionals take a hands-on approach to physical therapy and will create a unique plan to satisfy your needs – Depending on your goals and limitations with balance problems, physical therapy has a place for you. Visit the location nearest you to get your balance back!

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