Researchers at Victoria University are investigating if toe training – strengthening the muscles in the toes and the feet – can reduce the incidence of falls in older people.
Karen Mickle, a post-doctoral research fellow at Victoria University, has developed a unique exercise program. The program not only increases foot strength but improves balance and foot health in older adults.
“The strength of your toes is a greater predictor of future falls than many other risk factors,” Dr Mickle said. “People with weak toes and toe deformities are twice as likely to fall over.
“Falls are a devastating health, social and economic problem and are the leading cause of injury, disability, hospitalisation and death for older adults.”
Falls account for 47.6% of hospital treatment costs for injury in Victoria, with an annual figure of $383.7 million.
Dr Mickle found that toe strength is decreased in older adults by about 20-25% compared to young adults.
“I had identified that reduced strength of the muscles that flex the toes is one of the strongest independent contributors to falls in older adults. Yet despite this evidence, no previous research has investigated whether a dedicated exercise program designed to strengthen the toe flexor muscles can reduce the rate of falling in older adults.”
She developed a series of exercises using resistance bands to restore strength. Participants who attended classes three days a week for 12 weeks increased their toe strength by an average of 36%.
As well as strengthening muscles, the exercises also helped with the general health and function of ageing feet. They could potentially also benefit people with diabetes or other foot problems.
“If normal foot function can be restored in individuals who suffer foot pathologies, we may reduce the risk of falls and foot pain and therefore improve independence and quality of life,” Dr Mickle said.