Clinical Review

Improving Strength and Balance for Long-Term Care Residents At Risk for Falling: Suggestions for Practice



From the Geriatric Education and Research in Aging Sciences Centre, McMaster University Hamilton, ON (Dr. McArthur) and the University of Waterloo and Research Institute for Aging, Waterloo, ON (Dr. Giangregorio), Canada


  • Objective: To synthesize the available literature on exercise and falls reduction interventions in long-term care (LTC) and provide practical information for clinicians and other decision makers.
  • Methods: Review of positive trials included in systematic reviews.
  • Results: Falls are a major concern for residents, families, clinicians, and decision-makers in LTC. Exercise is recommended as part of a multifactorial falls prevention program for residents in LTC. Strength and balance exercises should be incorporated into the multifactorial falls prevention program. They should be challenging and progressed as the residents’ abilities improve. Evidence suggests that exercises should be completed 2 to 3 times per week for a period longer than 6 months. Exercise programs in LTC should be resident-centered and should consider residents’ potential physical and cognitive impairments. Exercises in standing should be prioritized where appropriate.
  • Conclusion: Appropriately challenging and progressive strength and balance exercises should be included in a multifactorial falls prevention program for residents in LTC.

Key words: long-term care; nursing homes; falls reduction; exercise.

Falls are common in long-term care (LTC) homes: the estimated falls rate is 1.5 falls per bed per year, which is 3 times greater than that for older adults living in the community [1]. Falls can have significant consequences for residents in LTC, including functional disability, fractures, pain, reduced quality of life, and death [1–6]. Indeed, 25% of residents who are hospitalized after a fall die within 1 year [3]. Consequently, falls prevention programs are important to help in reducing falls and averting the associated negative consequences.

Exercise may address the circumstances and physical deconditioning that often contribute to falls in LTC residents. Weight shifting [7], walking, and transferring [8–10], are common activities that precede falls, suggesting that balance, gait, and functional mobility training may be possible targets for prevention. Additionally, it is estimated that LTC residents spend three quarters of their waking time in sedentary activities [11,12] and have a high prevalence of sarcopenia [13–16]. Challenging balance training and resistance exercise are well-known intervention for reducing falls [17] and improving muscle strength for community-dwelling older adults [18]. However, evidence around balance and strength training for preventing falls in LTC is mixed [17,19,20], and careful planning and modification of exercises is necessary to meet the needs of LTC residents.

Residents in LTC are often medically complex, with multiple comorbidities [21] that can affect their ability to meaningfully participate in exercise. In Canada, 56.3% of residents have a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or other dementias, 25.0% have diabetes, 14.4% have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and 21.2% have experienced a stroke [21]. Residents also often have significant functional impairments. For example, 97% of residents require assistance with basic activities of daily living [21]. Therefore, the lack of effect of exercise as a single falls prevention strategy observed in previous studies may be because the often complex, multimorbid LTC population likely requires a multifactorial approach to fall prevention [17]. Additionally, organizational aspects of LTC homes (eg, specific funds dedicated to employing exercise professionals and to support exercise programming) can affect residents’ engagement in exercise [22,23]. Subsequently, prescribing exercises in the LTC context must consider both resident characteristics and organizational features of the LTC home (eg, professionals available to support exercise programming).

A comprehensive exercise prescription describes the elements of an appropriate exercise program to facilitate implementation of that program. The exercise prescription should include a description of the type (eg, balance, strength) and intensity of exercises (eg, subjective or objective measurement of how hard the resident is working) included in the program [24]. The prescription should also include a description of the dose of exercise: frequency of exercise participation (eg, 2 days per week), duration of individual exercise sessions (eg, 30-minute sessions), and duration of exercise program (eg, 12-week program) [24]. Lastly, the prescription should describe the setting of the exercise program (eg, group or individual basis) and the professional delivering the program (eg, physiotherapist, fitness instructor) [24].

Therefore, the objectives of this article are to (1) synthesize studies demonstrating a positive effect of exercise on reducing falls for residents in LTC; (2) provide an overview of the principles of balance and strength training to guide clinicians in designing appropriate exercise prescription; and (3) make suggestions for clinical practice regarding an appropriate strength and balance exercise protocol by considering the influence of the LTC context.


To provide clinicians and other policy-makers with a description of which balance and strength exercises may be effective for preventing falls, we synthesized trials that demonstrated a positive effect on reducing falls or falls risk for residents in LTC. Studies were identified through a database search for systematic reviews in PubMed, Ovid, and Google Scholar using the keywords falls, long-term care, nursing homes, exercise, strength, balance, and systematic reviews. Our purpose was to provide practical information on what works to prevent falls through balance and strength training for residents in LTC rather than to evaluate the available evidence. Therefore, only positive trials from systematic reviews were discussed, as we wanted to present exercises that seem to have a positive effect on decreasing falls. Positive trials were defined as those included in identified systematic reviews with a risk or rate ratio and confidence intervals below 1.0.


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