Clinician Article

Exercise for preventing falls in older people living in the community.

  • Sherrington C
  • Fairhall NJ
  • Wallbank GK
  • Tiedemann A
  • Michaleff ZA
  • Howard K, et al.
Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2019 Jan 31;1:CD012424. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD012424.pub2. (Review)
PMID: 30703272
Read abstract Read evidence summary
  • Geriatrics
    Relevance - 7/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7
  • Family Medicine (FM)/General Practice (GP)
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7
  • General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7
  • Public Health
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7


BACKGROUND: At least one-third of community-dwelling people over 65 years of age fall each year. Exercises that target balance, gait and muscle strength have been found to prevent falls in these people. An up-to-date synthesis of the evidence is important given the major long-term consequences associated with falls and fall-related injuries OBJECTIVES: To assess the effects (benefits and harms) of exercise interventions for preventing falls in older people living in the community.

SEARCH METHODS: We searched CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, three other databases and two trial registers up to 2 May 2018, together with reference checking and contact with study authors to identify additional studies.

SELECTION CRITERIA: We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) evaluating the effects of any form of exercise as a single intervention on falls in people aged 60+ years living in the community. We excluded trials focused on particular conditions, such as stroke.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: We used standard methodological procedures expected by Cochrane. Our primary outcome was rate of falls.

MAIN RESULTS: We included 108 RCTs with 23,407 participants living in the community in 25 countries. There were nine cluster-RCTs. On average, participants were 76 years old and 77% were women. Most trials had unclear or high risk of bias for one or more items. Results from four trials focusing on people who had been recently discharged from hospital and from comparisons of different exercises are not described here.Exercise (all types) versus control Eighty-one trials (19,684 participants) compared exercise (all types) with control intervention (one not thought to reduce falls). Exercise reduces the rate of falls by 23% (rate ratio (RaR) 0.77, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.71 to 0.83; 12,981 participants, 59 studies; high-certainty evidence). Based on an illustrative risk of 850 falls in 1000 people followed over one year (data based on control group risk data from the 59 studies), this equates to 195 (95% CI 144 to 246) fewer falls in the exercise group. Exercise also reduces the number of people experiencing one or more falls by 15% (risk ratio (RR) 0.85, 95% CI 0.81 to 0.89; 13,518 participants, 63 studies; high-certainty evidence). Based on an illustrative risk of 480 fallers in 1000 people followed over one year (data based on control group risk data from the 63 studies), this equates to 72 (95% CI 52 to 91) fewer fallers in the exercise group. Subgroup analyses showed no evidence of a difference in effect on both falls outcomes according to whether trials selected participants at increased risk of falling or not.The findings for other outcomes are less certain, reflecting in part the relatively low number of studies and participants. Exercise may reduce the number of people experiencing one or more fall-related fractures (RR 0.73, 95% CI 0.56 to 0.95; 4047 participants, 10 studies; low-certainty evidence) and the number of people experiencing one or more falls requiring medical attention (RR 0.61, 95% CI 0.47 to 0.79; 1019 participants, 5 studies; low-certainty evidence). The effect of exercise on the number of people who experience one or more falls requiring hospital admission is unclear (RR 0.78, 95% CI 0.51 to 1.18; 1705 participants, 2 studies, very low-certainty evidence). Exercise may make little important difference to health-related quality of life: conversion of the pooled result (standardised mean difference (SMD) -0.03, 95% CI -0.10 to 0.04; 3172 participants, 15 studies; low-certainty evidence) to the EQ-5D and SF-36 scores showed the respective 95% CIs were much smaller than minimally important differences for both scales.Adverse events were reported to some degree in 27 trials (6019 participants) but were monitored closely in both exercise and control groups in only one trial. Fourteen trials reported no adverse events. Aside from two serious adverse events (one pelvic stress fracture and one inguinal hernia surgery) reported in one trial, the remainder were non-serious adverse events, primarily of a musculoskeletal nature. There was a median of three events (range 1 to 26) in the exercise groups.Different exercise types versus controlDifferent forms of exercise had different impacts on falls (test for subgroup differences, rate of falls: P = 0.004, I² = 71%). Compared with control, balance and functional exercises reduce the rate of falls by 24% (RaR 0.76, 95% CI 0.70 to 0.81; 7920 participants, 39 studies; high-certainty evidence) and the number of people experiencing one or more falls by 13% (RR 0.87, 95% CI 0.82 to 0.91; 8288 participants, 37 studies; high-certainty evidence). Multiple types of exercise (most commonly balance and functional exercises plus resistance exercises) probably reduce the rate of falls by 34% (RaR 0.66, 95% CI 0.50 to 0.88; 1374 participants, 11 studies; moderate-certainty evidence) and the number of people experiencing one or more falls by 22% (RR 0.78, 95% CI 0.64 to 0.96; 1623 participants, 17 studies; moderate-certainty evidence). Tai Chi may reduce the rate of falls by 19% (RaR 0.81, 95% CI 0.67 to 0.99; 2655 participants, 7 studies; low-certainty evidence) as well as reducing the number of people who experience falls by 20% (RR 0.80, 95% CI 0.70 to 0.91; 2677 participants, 8 studies; high-certainty evidence). We are uncertain of the effects of programmes that are primarily resistance training, or dance or walking programmes on the rate of falls and the number of people who experience falls. No trials compared flexibility or endurance exercise versus control.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: Exercise programmes reduce the rate of falls and the number of people experiencing falls in older people living in the community (high-certainty evidence). The effects of such exercise programmes are uncertain for other non-falls outcomes. Where reported, adverse events were predominantly non-serious.Exercise programmes that reduce falls primarily involve balance and functional exercises, while programmes that probably reduce falls include multiple exercise categories (typically balance and functional exercises plus resistance exercises). Tai Chi may also prevent falls but we are uncertain of the effect of resistance exercise (without balance and functional exercises), dance, or walking on the rate of falls.

Clinical Comments

General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)

I considered giving this article an even lower rating than 4 for newsworthiness as it could not determine whether the exercise truly made the patient's life any better.

General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)

Despite the relatively low-quality evidence, I think this is a useful reference document for clinicians when patients ask about the data supporting specific types of exercise and gives guidance on programs that generally are the most beneficial.

General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)

The meta-analysis reviews the literature for an important clinical problem. Unfortunately, the evidence that many patients and providers might care about (risk of fracture, hospitalization, medical attention, and adverse events) was "low- to very low-certainty." Although some providers might find this meta-analysis to be reassuring to recommend exercise to reduce the risk for falls, other providers who require a higher level of evidence for fracture risk or hospitalization will not be moved by this manuscript. I don't think these findings will change clinical practice.

General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)

This makes biologic sense and I see no downside.


Supports previous articles showing decrease in falls among those participating in exercise (functional and balance training). Nothing really new, just an excellent review of recent available evidence.


Exercise prescriptions in primary care seem to be rare, and this robust intervention continues not to receive the attention it deserves. What is needed now is not more proof of the benefits of exercise (particularly strength and balance training), but research into the number, quality, and accessibility of suitable exercise programs in small, medium, and large communities. Findings are likely to find significant disparities based on the socioeconomic status and ethnic/racial mix of the community.

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