The down dog, the triangle with chair, the scorpion. These and other yoga poses, suggests a new preliminary study, could hold the key to fending off falls, which are among the leading causes of injury in elderly people. Some experts, though, say for better balance and stability while walking, tai chi and pilates are superior.
The study, which researchers from Temple University's School of Podiatric Medicine released this month at a scientific conference, indicates that a type of yoga involving props like belts, ropes, and cushions—called Iyengar yoga—could prevent falls among people 65 and older. Lead researcher Jinsup Song, director of the school's Gait Study Center, says the elderly women in the study showed improvement in their balance, had greater range of motion and flexibility in the legs and feet, and reported greater confidence in their ability to walk after nine weeks of training with yoga instructors. "The participants," says Song, "appeared to distribute their weight more evenly throughout the foot by the end of the program," which can improve stability and might decrease the likelihood of falling.
Other forms of physical activity have also been found to increase stability, experts say. Still, some of them are skeptical that the gains in muscle strength and flexibility from yoga actually translate into fall prevention. "For high-risk individuals like the elderly, yoga is simply not a sufficiently intense activity to lower the risk of falls," says Debra Rose, codirector of the Fall Prevention Center of Excellence, which is based at University of Southern California, an a professor at California State University-Fullerton. She adds that while yoga emphasizes static poses, which can be helpful for balance when standing still, tai chi and pilates are more effective at improving motor control and coordination for walking—when most falls occur.
It's the focus on precise body movements and strengthening the hip and leg joints and the body's core—the abdominal and back muscles—that seems to make tai chi and pilates better suited to lowering the risk of falling. A 1996 study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that for people 70 and older, tai chi cut the risk of falling nearly in half after only 15 weeks. With pilates, says Rose, "if you lose your balance while walking, you'll be better able to make rapid adjustments in your gait" to stave off a spill.
At Pilates on Fifth, a studio in Manhattan, 25 to 30 elderly men and women, many referred there by doctors and rehabilitation specialists, are currently training with instructors to boost their mobility. Co-owner Katherine Corp says the pilates exercises have a huge impact on the seniors' confidence, motivation, and what she calls "dynamic stability," or the balance that results from practicing moving through space in many directions.
Rose cautions that older adults should consult with their doctors before signing up for a pilates, tai chi, or yoga class, especially if they have lower back problems or other disabilities. Some physical therapists and other health professionals, in fact, are specially trained to work with elderly people either in private or group sessions. "A certified instructor with enough experience should listen to what you say, be compassionate, and shouldn't push you too hard," says Corp. "Everyone remembers the glory days, but you have to work with the body you have now."