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Unsteady on the stairs? Fitness tips for older people

stairs fitness
claudine aherne Vida Wellness
Written by Claudine Aherne

Do you worry about your parents feeling unsteady on the stairs (especially when out and about on public transport)?
If your older parents are still active and independent enough to get out and do most of the things they want and need to do, you will want to do everything you can to keep it that way.
For your parents (also in-laws, aunts and uncles, neighbours and friends) to stay independent, they need to feel able to travel freely. They need to feel confident they can get to places they need to go (doctors appointments, shops) and want to go (museums, visiting friends and family).

Why won’t mum come to stay?

A friend of mine spends hours on the motorway with her children visiting her 80-year-old mother for rushed weekends. She enjoys spending time with her but would love to have her to stay sometimes (they could have more time together, it would be less hurried, and she could fit some work and children’s activities in too). stairs fitness
Kate’s mother is active but struggles with the journey because of the stairs at the station (as well as the big step getting on and off the train). She feels anxious about falling on the stairs and doesn’t like trying to navigate them with her weekend bag.
People like Kate’s mother are usually fine on the stairs at home, but most of us don’t realise how different stairs can feel to older people when they are out and about, especially in places like train or tube stations. Going up can be exhausting, but it’s coming down that causes the most difficulty and anxiety.

I have been helping people in their 70s, 80s and 90s to stay fit, improve their balance, feel stronger and reduce their risk of falls for more than 15 years. I have worked with many older clients to improve their stair fitness and help them feel more steady and confident on any flight of stairs.

Why do stairs get harder with age?

There are many reasons why people find the stairs harder with age. As we get older, we lose muscle strength and flexibility (although the right exercises can go a long way to maintaining this). Problems with vision contribute significantly to the difficulties older people experience going down the stairs.

With age, we also find it harder to maintain our balance when there are lots of distractions. So, busy, noisy environments like train stations are very challenging. Also, our sense of where our joints are in space decreases and our reaction times are slower.
Any dizziness or unsteadiness will be much worse on the stairs. Some medications can cause dizziness, and being on 4 or more medications is known to increase the risk of falls. Dizziness and unsteadiness can also be the result of damage to the areas of the brain that coordinate balance (e.g. MS, stroke or Parkinson’s disease).
All of these factors can make stairs particularly challenging (especially on the way down).
People have told me that the stairs at train and tube stations can be horrendous. They feel unsteady, apprehensive and afraid of falling.

Signs to look out forhand 408781 640

Your parents may feel embarrassed to admit this (especially to you, as they know you will worry about them even more). Here are some signs to look out for to help you understand if your parents are having difficulty going down the stairs in these places.

  • Walking sideways down the stairs
  • Gripping the handrail very tightly
  • Holding the handrail and touching the wall on the other side as well
  • Walking very slowly and with great care
  • Unwilling to carry on a conversation at the same time as walking down the stairs
  • Placing two feet on each step to steady themselves
  • Holding on quite tightly when you offer a supporting arm (and still taking it slowly)

If you aren’t with them at these times, you might still notice them doing some of the following:

  • Avoiding trips involving public transport
  • Avoiding certain times of day (rush hour or when the schools finish perhaps)
  • Stopping going to places or activities which they used to enjoy, for no obvious reason

Don’t assume that, because your parents are fine on the stairs at home, they are OK everywhere else. For you, the difference between the stairs at home and out is not that significant. For some older people, this difference can be substantial and enough to cause great anxiety.
Stairs at home are a known quantity, always have a handrail (and usually a wall close by on the other side) and can be taken at your own pace. Stairs in public places, including train and tube stations, can be very wide, don’t always have a handrail and are busy and noisy. Older people can’t take their time and may feel more stressed by all the people rushing around them.

The impact on daily life

The difficulties that older people have on stairs in these places can have a considerable impact on their lives.
They may avoid certain places altogether (perhaps stop going to meet friends, visiting museums or travelling to see grandchildren). In particular, they are likely to avoid new places or trips as they will be unsure of what to expect and don’t want to get themselves into a potentially uncomfortable or dangerous situation.stairs fitness
They may continue to go to some of these places but feel deeply anxious or stressed, affecting their quality of life.
The impact on someone’s life when an everyday activity (e.g. stairs, driving) becomes difficult can be considerable. As older people go out less or restrict the places they go, they become less confident, see fewer people and are less active.

Their fitness declines as they spend more time at or close to home. They miss the mental stimulation of being in different situations and seeing a variety of people. This can result in further anxiety, depression or a sense of things closing down.

I know you don’t want this to happen to the older people in your life. Here are three things you can do today to help them:

1. Encourage them to ask their GP or pharmacist to review their medications. As some drugs can cause dizziness and increase falls risk, it is important that people are only taking medicines they need, are on the right dose and taking them correctly.
2. Remind them to have regular eye checks and get any problems with their vision (eg. cataracts, glaucoma) dealt with quickly. Ensure all glasses are to the correct prescription and they have a spare pair with them at all times.
3. Emphasise the importance of being as active as possible. The stronger, more mobile and flexible they are, the less likely they are to feel tired or unsteady on the stairs.

Receive 5 free videos

At Vida Wellness we have created five exercise videos to help older people feel stronger, become more flexible and improve their balance. These videos are designed to help older people improve their fitness so that they have more energy for everyday activities. Being stronger and having better balance will reduce their risk of falls, whether walking or on the stairs. stairs fitness
These include an 8-minute Move More Easily video (great to reduce joint stiffness and get moving, no equipment needed) and an Ankle Mobility and Balance routine (better ankle strength and mobility are crucial to safe walking and stair climbing).
Our older clients have told us that our videos are ‘brilliant, clear and easy to follow’.
Click here to receive all five free videos and a bonus PDF guide to Safe and Successful Home Exercise with Vida Wellness.

About the author

claudine aherne Vida Wellness

Claudine Aherne

Claudine Aherne is the founder of Vida Wellness and lives in London. She is an exercise specialist who has been helping older adults to become stronger, improve their balance and feel more flexible for more than 15 years.
Claudine has created exercise videos to help people like your parents, family or friends to stay independent and active for longer.