“Until you actually learn to fall, your nervous system will never truly know that it is actually safe to fall.” -Dr. Shante Cofield
I spend the majority of my time discussing concerns about falls with my clients, so it’s on my mind often. As a physical therapist specializing in empowering adults throughout the aging process, both the future and current risk of falls are the number one concern each of my clients express. And to guide them through this process, I have to help them analyze both the physical and psychological risk factors. Because they both play a major role.
Another one of my roles is to help all adults adopt forms of physical activity and exercise they enjoy. We’ve all heard the health benefits of physical activity, which are created by exposing ourselves to controlled stress. And this defines the actual purpose of exercise, or putting yourself in any uncomfortable situation. To allow your body to adapt by exposing yourself to controlled stress. Small amounts of stress are what make you resilient, in both mind and body. It trains your body how to recover from physiological stress.
And falling follows a similar concept. By exposing yourself to controlled falls, you’re prepared for the real deal. When I tell my clients that they should be practicing falling, they all look at me in shock. My purpose is to help them prevent falls in the first place, so why would I give this counterintuitive advice? For several reasons, so let’s break it down.
When we talk about falls, it helps to have an understanding of what actually defines a fall as there is confusion around the term. The definition of a fall is any uncontrolled descent. A common misconception is that it doesn’t count as a fall if you caught yourself on something. But I have news: even that is still a fall. If you plop into a chair every time you sit down, that's also a fall. And it’s only natural that we freeze up and become fearful of any situation where we aren’t in control.
“Falls don’t “just happen” and people don’t fall because they get older.” -NIH Senior Website
We’ve all heard about the dangers of falls in older adults. The statistics are alarming. And we all know someone it’s happened to. But here’s the deal: not all falls can be prevented. And that’s just life. The problem comes in when falls become too frequent or there’s an inability to recover from a fall.
The antidote to this is to practice falling so your behavior during a fall becomes reflexive. The act of practicing falling is an act of acceptance. Learning to let go of the things we can't control and surrendering to them. And being prepared for those unknown circumstances gives us the confidence to know by surrendering everything will turn out for the best.
“The impact of a fall has more to do with the state of the body doing the falling- the interface between a body and a particular surface.” -Katy Bowman, Dynamic Aging: Simple Exercises for Whole-Body Mobility
The less rigid you can be during a fall, the better. Rigidity leaves when fear leaves. The more you practice falling, the less likely you are to become fearful and rigid.
Imagine a brittle object falling to the ground. It shatters the moment it hits. Think instead of a more pliable object. Pliable objects are generally fine after hitting the ground. By changing the composition of your body you can make yourself less likely to be injured during a fall.
A stronger, more flexible person will adapt to the ground better than someone lacking muscle mass with a lot of joint stiffness. By implementing a simple, daily mobility and strengthening program you can better protect yourself in the event of a fall.
“We’ve essentially mislabeled “scared gait” as “senior gait”.” -Katy Bowman, Dynamic Aging: Simple Exercises for Whole-Body Mobility
One of the reasons we fall as we age is that we become less playful with our mobility and more cautious. The irony is this fear that makes us more likely to fall to begin with.
One of the strongest risk factors for having a fall is the fear of falling in the first place. This is stronger than any other physical risk factor, like loss of strength or balance, that might contribute to falls. Fear of falling can exist whether or not there’s been a fall in the past. Even those who haven’t had a fall and are fearful are more likely to fall than someone who has fallen in the past and isn’t fearful of falling.
So avoid developing this fear of falling by finding small ways to physically challenge yourself in your environment daily. This also gives your brain health a boost, ensuring that your mind and body maintain a strong connection. Life should be playful and continue to approach it that way.
By spending more time on the floor ON PURPOSE, practicing falling, and conditioning your mind and body to be able to handle the unknown you can avoid becoming one of the alarming statistics behind falls in older adults. It’s never too early or too late to start thinking about this.
If you aren’t sure where to start I highly recommend seeking the help of a trained professional, like a physical therapist or movement coach. Once you have the confidence to practice falling, make it a daily habit. Continue to build on your practice and see where it takes you. Not only will you reap the physical benefits, but there is something so powerful about learning to surrender to the unknown in all areas of life.