Decreased mobility due to aging is not irreversible, even though studies show that people typically lose 8 percent or more muscle mass every decade after age 40. Muscle mass gives you strength and is associated with mobility. For some older adults, it is also vital to their independence.
Dr. Kris Berg devoted much of his 45-year career at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) specifically tailoring exercise programs for people with chronic conditions. His interests in aging and exercise resulted in courses including “Special Exercise for Life and Fitness (SELF)” and “Strong Bones.”
“The broad goal of our exercise programs is to improve the movement function,” said Dr. Berg. “We incorporate aerobic activity, flexibility, stretching, and coordination activities… it’s an integrated approach.”
Forging Muscle Memory
If a complete transformation from leading a sedentary lifestyle to sporting muscles sounds too much of a stretch, the good news is that you can at least forge muscle memories through repetitive motions.
Research indicates that hours following an activity session, proteins in the brain help develop new brain cells in people age 65 or above. Dr. Berg and his team realized that in order to meet the needs of program participants, they needed to achieve the movement patterns of daily activities.
The exercise expert uses patterns and tests in training sessions to keep older adults with mobility issues on their feet, training their brains as well as their individual muscles. “Everything involves steps, in many directions,” Dr. Berg explained. He instructed participants to practice multi-directional movements repeatedly, until it becomes natural for them to lift their knees and hips to move in all directions instead of pivoting.
Cause of Falls in Older Adults
Many older adults tend to “pivot” when they attempt to make a turn, and Dr. Berg suggested that may be a possible cause of falls. “It’s efficient. You hardly have to move,” Dr. Berg explained. Pivoting not far enough or over-pivoting can both throw people off balance. When people are not coordinated enough to regain balance, they fall.
And so breaking the habit begins with teaching people multi-directional movements. The “Four Squares Step Test” requires participants to move repeatedly from counterclockwise to clockwise. Dr. Berg and his team test the participants with a stopwatch periodically. They find most participants are picking up the pace cycles after.
“The step test teaches people to lift the knees just a little bit in the lateral, forward directions,” Dr. Berg said. “It kind of teaches the brain to move in all directions.” He elaborated that repeat practices of changing movement patterns enhance coordination and eventually build leg strength. In theory, the brain would be in better control, too. “It’s a much safer strategy to take a step, instead of a pivot.”