Everyone’s familiar with the expression life is all about balance. And as we get older, it becomes quite literally true. One in three seniors can expect to lose their balance and fall each year, making falls the number one cause of injury to older adults. Falls are no joke. They can result in debilitating fractures and other disastrous complications.
You may not have the grace of, say, a ballerina. Still, staying steady on your own two feet is a good strategy for healthy aging, and essential to preventing falls and other mishaps.
Why We Fall More and More
Unfortunately, losing our sense of balance is a normal part of the aging process. Common conditions and diseases associated with aging — arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, eye problems, vertigo and heart disease — lessen our ability to stay balanced and move freely. It’s this unsteadiness that can eventually lead to falls and injuries.
In his book Balance: In Search of the Lost Sense, Scott McCredie ponders why balance training isn’t emphasized in fitness circles as often as strength training, aerobics or stretching. He notes that our sense of balance begins to decline pretty early in life — in our 20’s — and then it’s all downhill from there… that is, unless we take steps to preserve our body’s ability to maintain equilibrium.
What Is Balance?
Simply put, balance is an even distribution of weight enabling someone to remain upright and steady. Our ability to balance requires a magically complex combination of muscle strength, inner ear coordination, healthy vision and spatial awareness. Receptors in our joints, ligaments and muscles also help us stay upright, giving a fast twitch to our brain if things go awry. Suppleness in the upper body and neck helps keep our head balanced properly, and overall coordination keeps our whole body moving with grace and confidence.
While many age-related declines are unavoidable, physical therapists and fitness professionals stress that balance can be preserved and even improved with exercises that require no special training or equipment. Balance is a motor skill — emphasis on the skill. You can build and improve balance in much the same way you’d build muscles through strength training. Even better, combine strength training and balancing exercises. Together, they improve your body’s ability to maintain equilibrium when standing, walking or performing essential daily tasks.
Drawing from the experts, here are some essential tips and exercises.
“Life is like a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” — Albert Einstein
Hands-down, the single-most effective strategy to improve balance and minimize risk of falling is staying physically active. Regular daily exercise helps keep the body active and responsive.
It doesn’t have to be a gym workout. Studies show that Tai chi can help with balance issues, prevent falls, reduce stress and deliver a whole batch of other great benefits. A key teaching in Tai chi is connection with the feet, a skill that makes it easier to negotiate uneven surfaces when walking, as well as helping to prevent falls.
Hint: The International Taoist Tai Chi Society can help you find instructors and classes in your area.
Simple at Home Exercises
Here are some easy-to-do at-home balance exercises recommended by experts as part of a daily routine.
Standing on one foot, AKA “the flamingo” – This simple balance exercise involves standing on one foot for 10 seconds, then switching sides. Repeat up to 10 sets for each leg. Use a sturdy chair for support.
Walking heel to toe – Using a wall or grab rail for support, carefully walk forward, placing the heel of one foot in front of the toes of the other foot, as if walking on a tightrope. Continue for several steps, then turn around and repeat.
Side and back leg raises – Resting both hands on a sturdy chair back for support, lift one foot off the floor directly to the side, keeping the rest of your body straight. Hold for one breath, then release. Repeat 10 to 15 times on each side. Repeat the same exercise, raising each leg to the back.ere are some easy-to-do at-home balance exercises recommended by experts as part of a daily routine.
Sit-to-stand exercise – This is a common exercise for seniors regaining leg strength, core strength and balance after surgery or injury. Sitting straight in a firm chair (don’t lean against the back), grip the arm rests and press up to a standing position, keeping the back straight. Pause, and then sit back down. The aim is to stand and sit as efficiently and smoothly as possible. Repeat the exercise three times, eventually building to 10 repetitions. For a more challenging exercise, cross your arms over your chest, and repeat without using the arm rests for support.
If your balance (or a loved one’s) is getting worse or is increasingly challenged with everyday activities, it might be time to see an expert. A physical therapist (PT) can do a balance assessment, recommending the best type of reinforcement to keep you steady on your feet.
Many seniors are, incorrectly, fast-tracked to walkers, which are harder to maneuver and take more energy to get around. Traditional canes, smart canes or walking sticks may provide just the right amount of support, comfort and ease of movement.
Always remember though, it’s important to seek professional advice to find just the right solution for your needs.