Playing Catch Helps Prevent Falling In Seniors, Study Shows

First Posted: Jan 09, 2015 06:38 PM EST

The simple act of playing catch could help improve balance and may prevent falls in the elderly, according to recent findings published in the two journals: Electromyography and Kinesiology and Experimental Brain Research.

Scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago examined the strategies that the brain uses to improve balance or prevent fall when someone is jostled by a bump or a stumble.

"When the perturbation is predictable, for example, if when walking down the street you see someone about to bump into you, you brace yourself," said Alexander Aruin, professor of physical therapy at UIC and principal investigator on the two studies, in a news release. The brain activates muscles in anticipation of the jolt.

As we age, we lose our anticipatory postural control, along with the ability to ready ourselves in maintaining balance. Therefore, there is no preparatory activation of muscles, leaving us with only compensatory action. In effect, our resources for maintaining balance become more limited as we become less stable and more prone to falls.

"We know a lot about the elements of postural control," said Aruin, who has studied that mechanism for 20 years. More recently, he and his coworkers began to investigate whether special training or exercises could enhance anticipatory adjustments and help people to utilize them.

In one of the new studies, researchers asked a group of healthy young adults to stand and catch a medicine ball while an older group of healthy adults were asked to do the same thing.

While both groups showed improvements, researchers found that older adults also improved at performing a task that was not part of the training.

"There was a transfer effect," he said. "It tells us that -- potentially -- what people learn in the training might be helpful with other activities.

"Our group is the first to look at whether a specially designed rehabilitation protocol can enhance postural control adjustment and subsequently improve overall balance," Aruin concluded, noting that researchers plan to study the long-term effects of training, which they hope will show a lasting benefit.

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