Exercise prevents falls in people older than 60 years, especially if it focuses on balance and mimics daily activities, according to a Cochrane Review meta-analysis of 108 randomized controlled trials.

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Exercise has been shown to prevent falls in older people, but given the potential consequences, the investigators thought an up-to-date synthesis of the evidence was in order. The analysis focused on people living independently who had not recently been discharged from a hospital. The trials involved 23,407 subjects from 25 countries. The review was exhaustive; the final report is almost 600 pages long (Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2019 Jan 31;1:CD012424. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD012424.pub2).

The type of exercise matters. The researchers cited “high-certainty evidence” that exercise involving balance and functional training reduces falls. “Tai chi may also prevent falls,” they noted, adding that they were uncertain of the effect of dance, walking, and resistance training by itself. There was no evidence to determine the effects of flexibility or endurance exercises, added the researchers, led by Cathie Sherrington, PhD, of the University of Sydney Institute for Musculoskeletal Health.

Functional exercise mimics everyday movement, with the goal of improving performance. Multidirectional lunges are an example, helping the body prepare for vacuuming, yard work, and other common activities.

“Exercise [programs] carried out in group classes or done at home prescribed by a health professional ... or a trained exercise leader were effective. Exercises were mostly done while standing as this better enhances balance and the ability to do daily activities such as standing up from a low chair or climbing stairs,” according to a Cochrane press release regarding the study.

Overall, exercise reduced the number of falls by 23%, and the number of fallers by 15%, with high-certainty evidence.

Exercise also brought down the number of people facing fall fractures by over 27%, the number of people requiring medical attention for a fall by 39%, and the number ending up in the hospital for a fall by 22%.

Balance and functional exercises reduced the rate of falls by 24%, and the number of fallers by 13%. The effects were even greater when resistance exercises were added to the mix; drops in fall rates and the number of people experiencing falls were 34% and 22%, respectively. There was low-certainty evidence that tai chi reduces the rate of falls by 19% and the number of people experiencing falls by 20%.

Despite fall prevention, “exercise may make little important difference to health-related quality of life;” when results were converted to EQ-5D and 36-Item Short Form Survey scores, “the respective 95% [confidence intervals] were much smaller than minimally important differences,” the investigators said.

Serious adverse events occurred in participants in one of the 27 trials that reported adverse events. These two serious adverse events were a pelvic stress fracture and an inguinal hernia surgery. Most of the other adverse events reported, all non-serious, were musculoskeletal.

On average, participants were 76 years old, and 77% were women. Disease specific trials – such as exercise for stroke rehabilitation – were excluded.

The work was supported primarily by the Cochrane Bone, Joint and Muscle Trauma Group, based at the University of Manchester, England, and Cochrane’s Acute and Emergency Care Network. There were no industry disclosures.

SOURCE: Sherrington C et al. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2019 Jan 31;1:CD012424. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD012424.pub2.