“The beauty of this is that we really don’t have to teach anybody anything,” says Grabiner. “We put them on the treadmill, and the nervous system does the rest. It’s so cool.” Grabiner says the treadmill helps re-train nerves and muscles to respond automatically when people trip or slip.
Researchers in Australia are testing the Nintendo Wii balance board’s effects on older adults. And in a pilot study in New Hampshire called ActiveStep, a computer-controlled treadmill with a support harness that simulates slips and trips has been shown to reduce falls by 40 percent when used with traditional physical therapy.
Tonya Walton, who teaches a six-week fall-prevention class at Friendship Village Community Center in Chevy Chase, Md., says she uses low-tech measures to achieve similar results. Class members play volleyball with balloons, play catch with tennis balls and participate in other games that improve eye-hand coordination and movement. She also teaches simple strength and balance exercises—like walking toe-to-heel. Walton says as her students enjoy the games, their bodies remember how they moved when they were children. Stiff gaits relax and balance returns. It’s the same effect the university researchers are creating, but without the harness or treadmill.
“People come back to me after the class is over and say they are no longer afraid when they walk outside,” Walton says.
Cathie Gandel is a freelance writer based in Bridgehampton, N.Y.