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Lower Extremity Rehab for the Elderly

by K.D. Christensen DC, CCSP, DACRB

When a patient over the age of sixty needs to regain strength in an injured lower extremity, or when an elderly woman needs to build bone mass to prevent hip fractures, a question arises. What exercises are appropriate, safe, and effective? Won’t exercising this older patient make the problem worse? As caring doctors of Chiropractic, the last thing we want to do for our older patients is to increase their pain or add to their disability.

While there are very important special considerations when planning exercises for a patient over sixty, the benefits far outweigh the risks. In fact, it would be a distinct advantage for every person over the age of sixty to be under the care of a Chiropractor who can advise and provide guidance regarding the most effective forms of exercising. What follows is a review of the concerns we must address, and some solutions when we need to start an elderly patient on a lower extremity rehab program.

Rehab Concerns in the Elderly

Because the lower extremities bear the weight of the entire body, eventually some imbalance or mis-step will result in the need for a rehab program. There are several areas where older patients differ from the younger population, however. These special concerns include weaker bones, problems with blood flow, joint degeneration, and age-related weakness. Let’s look at each of these problem areas, and then we’ll see what the experts say.

Osteoporosis. With aging comes a loss of bone mass in many people, especially post-menopausal women. We don’t want to place an elderly patient in a situation that could cause a hip or leg fracture, or a vertebral compression fracture. Even recommending a walking program may expose elderly patients to a higher risk of ankle fractures, since what is normally a simple ankle sprain becomes a comminuted fracture when the bones are osteoporotic. A well-organized study of elderly women found a much higher incidence of thoracic compression fracture after five years of performing exercises that placed the spine in flexion. [1] This means that many of the standard exercises we use, such as knees to chest, and abdominal crunches should be modified or possibly even eliminated in the elderly population.

Hypertension/atherosclerosis. Hardening and constriction of the arteries cause a decrease in blood flow, especially to the extremities. The heart responds by increasing the blood pressure, trying to force the blood through the restricted areas. When resting measurements are consistently above 140 mmHg (systolic) and/or 90 mmHg (diastolic), the person has hypertension. Elderly patients entering the office may already be on medication to control their high blood pressure, especially in the higher age ranges. While the drugs do decrease the likelihood of strokes and heart attacks, many patients are still hesitant to exercise, and they become even more sedentary. There is now good evidence that exercise is not contra-indicated, and is actually beneficial for patients taking blood pressure medications. [2] We’ve got to consider what type of exercising is least likely to further increase blood pressure, since we don’t want to cause a heart attack or stroke.

Osteoarthrosis. Degenerative arthritis is one of the most common musculoskeletal disorders in older adults, causing significant amounts of physical disability. Osteoarthrosis afflicts an estimated 20 million Americans, with the knee being the most commonly affected weightbearing joint. [3] In addition to pain with movement, the involved joint(s) lose flexibility and strength. Also found is a loss of proprioception, which may be a contributor to impaired balance. [4] Exercises for the elderly must avoid increasing painful movements, yet improve flexibility, strength, and balance. Contrary to what is commonly believed, moderate exercise does not increase the risk for osteoarthrosis or exacerbate it; rather, it has been found to improve function and reduce pain. [5]

Deconditioning/low muscle mass. As we age, we become more sedentary. National surveys reveal that 70% or more of older adults do not engage in any regular exercise. [6] This compounds the previously identified loss of strength and muscle mass, and increase in body fat that is normally seen in aging. In fact, this change in body composition is tied to many factors, including poor nutrition, decreased physical activity, increased disability and disuse, type II muscle fiber atrophy, and drug side effects.

Benefits of Elder Exercise

The American Geriatrics Society recently reviewed the literature that demonstrates the wide range of benefits that are obtained when older patients exercise. [7] There is now a wealth of data that supports the value of resistance exercise in the geriatric population. Improvements are seen in weight and body composition, decreased falls, improved balance, better psychological health, less frailty and improved function. With exercise, the resting blood pressure lowers, and there is a reduction in the risk of all-cause mortality. [8] Studies have shown that the stronger the back and leg muscles are, the higher the bone density is in the region. [9] These benefits are so widespread, they overwhelm the few detrimental concerns, and encourage us to recommend resistance exercise to older patients who need lower extremity rehab.


First, flexion exercises may have to be avoided, in order to decrease the likelihood of compression fractures in the spine for some elderly patients. In fact, exercises that strengthen the back extensor muscles can decrease the thoracic kyphosis seen in many older women. [10] Repetitive impact stresses needs to be reduced without sacrificing the benefits of repetitive motion for the cardiovascular system. Swimming or water exercise is perhaps one of the ideal repetitive exercise options. Distance walking can cause repetitive overuse complaints. These can be minimized with the use of shoe inserts or custom orthotics made of viscoelastic materials. [11] If a lower extremity joint or muscle is acutely inflamed (with joint effusion), an initial period of relative rest with cryotherapy may be needed. During this period, though, exercise of the opposite leg should be encouraged. Vigorous exercise of the uninvolved contralateral leg muscles will produce a neurological stimulus in the injured side (called the “cross-over effect”), and helps to prevent atrophy. [12]

Isometric exercises may increase the systolic blood pressure; therefore, isotonic or “dynamic” exercises are the better choice. [13] Elastic resistance tubing is an excellent method to provide dynamic exercise strengthening without the need for machines or heavy weights. Older adults may have difficulty getting to and figuring out complex machines. They may not be able to handle heavy weights and barbells. Studies have shown that a home-based program using elastic tubing can provide significant gains in lower extremity strength and improvements in gait. [14] These exercises can be done standing or sitting.

ACSM/NSCA Guidelines

Two major organizations – the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) [15] and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) [16] have both published recommendations to be followed when advising older adults to exercise. Both state that aerobic and resistance exercise for older populations is generally safe and can be very effective, both for treating specific problems as well as avoiding general disability. These guidelines encourage the use of regular physical activity, along with specific exercising to improve endurance, strength, and proprioception. Current research has found that even high-intensity training of frail men and women in their 90s is safe and leads to significant gains in muscle strength and functional mobility. [17]


An appropriate and progressive rehab program should be started early in the treatment of all patients with lower extremity injuries and problems. [18] Selecting the best exercise approach for an older patient is not difficult, but does require some special considerations. A review of the patient’s health history is necessary, in order to identify any complicating or restricting factors. Using the factors described above, an effective lower extremity rehab program can be easily designed for an elderly patient. A closely monitored home exercise program allows the doctor of Chiropractic to provide cost-efficient, yet very effective, rehabilitation care for patients of all ages.


1. Sinaki M, Mikkelsen BA. Postmenopausal spinal osteoporosis: flexion vs. extension exercises. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 1984; 65:593-596.

2. LaFontaine T. Resistance training for patients with hypertension. Strength & Conditioning 1997; 19:5-7.

3. Lawrence RC et al. Estimates of the prevalence of arthritis and selected musculoskeletal disorders in the United States. Arthritis Rheum 1998; 41:778-799.

4. Wegener L, Kisner C, Nichols D. Static and dynamic balance responses in persons with bilateral knee osteoarthritis. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 1997; 25:13-18.

5. Casper J, Berg K. Effects of exercise on osteoarthritis: a review. J Strength Condition Res 1998; 12:120-125.

6. Clark DO. Racial and educational differences in physical activity among older adults. Gerontologist 1995; 35:472-480.

7. Christmas C, Andersen RA. Exercise and older patients: guidelines for the clinician. J Am Geriatr Soc 2000; 48:318-324.

8. Blair SN et al. Influences of cardiorespiratory fitness and other precursors on cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality in men and women. JAMA 1996; 276:205-210.

9. Sinaki M, Offord KP. Physical activity in postmenopausal women: effect on back muscle strength and bone mineral density. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 1988; 69:277-80.

10. Itoi E, Sinaki M. Effect of back-strengthening exercise on posture in healthy women 49 to 65 years of age. Mayo Clin Proc 1994; 69:1054-1059.

11. Schwellnus MP et al. Prevention of common overuse injuries by the use of shock absorbing insoles. Am J Sports Med 1990; 18:636-641.

12. Hertling D, Kessler RM. Management of Common Musculoskeletal Disorders. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: JB Lippincott; 1990. 334.

13. American College of Sports Medicine. Exercise prescription for special populations. In: Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. 1991. 166.

14. Jette AM et al. Exercise- it’s never too late: the strong-for-life program. Am J Publ Health 1999; 89:66-71.

15. American College of Sports Medicine. Exercise and physical activity for older adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1998; 30:992-1008.

16. Pearson D et al. The national strength and conditioning association’s basic guidelines for the resistance training of athletes. Strength & Conditioning J 2000; 22(4):14-27.

17. Fiatarone MA et al. High-intensity strength training in nonagenarians: effects on skeletal muscle. JAMA 1990; 263(22):3029-3034.

18. Kibler WB et al. Functional Rehabilitation of Sports and Musculoskeletal Injuries. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Publishers; 1998. 252.

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