BALANCE TRAINING—STAYING STEADY ON YOUR FEET
When we were younger we took balance and staying upright for granted. We never worried about falling. However as we age our body’s systems that detect gravity and body positioning and promote balance and stability become less effective. Falls are one of the leading causes of injury and death for seniors. (On his 89th birthday my dad fell, hitting his head, and even though he was rushed to the hospital, died within a week.)
Balance training is important for everyone. No matter your present age or physical condition you can take actions to prevent falls over the long run.
Group fitness classes are an excellent way to get your balance training. Here are suggestions from an article by Kathy Kuenzer, PhD in American Fitness Magazine titled Fall Prevention.
Studies show that having a strong core and leg muscles and practicing weight shifts contribute to improved balance. Tai chi is excellent for balance because it uses multiple types of weight shifts as well as standing on one leg for short periods of time. This form of exercise helps improve balance because it targets all the physical components needed to stay upright—leg strength, flexibility, range of motion and reflexes.
Another of tai chi’s benefits is emotional. “Anyone who’s had a fall or who has instability has what we call a ‘fear of falling,’” says Dr. Peter Wayne from the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “Ironically, a fear of falling is one of the biggest predictors of a fall. By making you firmer on your feet, tai chi takes away that fear,” he says.
Preliminary evidence also shows that “core strength training and Pilates exercise training have a positive influence on measures of strength, balance, functional performance and falls in older adults.” Simply stated, core strength gives persons a good base for controlling movement and maintaining balance.
“Pilates increases strength and flexibility in both the core and the legs, which positively affects balance. This, along with basic fitness benefits, can help reduce the risk of falls,” according to Ellie Herman, owner of several Pilates studios, and a renowned Pilates instructor and author. (Although Pilates is great for improving core strength and postural alignment in seniors, many Pilates mat exercises focus on spinal flexion. This is problematic because the area at risk of fracture in seniors is between the scapulae affected when performing many of the popular abdominal forward flexion exercises.)
Although it is not regarded to be as effective as tai chi, yoga is another balance-enhancing form of exercise that can be done in a class setting. If needed, persons can practice standing poses using chairs to support themselves. Appropriate poses include an alternative downward-facing dog for flexibility, the crescent lunge for balance and stability, the chair pose for leg strength, the bridge pose for core strength and stability, and the tree pose for balance and alignment.
One caveat from the American Physical Therapy Association is that “balance training should be challenging and progressive in difficulty (such as reducing base of support and/or increasing movement in multiple directions).”
Below are some simple exercises shared by Caroline De Groot, M.P.T., a physical therapist, from an article by Aleisha K Fetters at SilverSneakers.com 6 Best Exercises for Balance and Stability
Perform these bodyweight moves as often as possible: when you’re standing at the kitchen counter or waiting in line while running errands. In each, if needed, you can hold onto a wall or a sturdy piece of furniture for balance. (As you get stronger, perform the move without holding onto anything.)
- Foot Taps Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart in front of a step (the bottom step of a staircase will work) or low piece of furniture. From here, slowly raise one foot to tap the step in front of you, and then slowly return it to the floor. Perform 15 to 20 taps, then repeat on the opposite leg.
- Head Rotations Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. From here, slowly move your head from side to side then up and down while keeping your body as still as possible. Do this for 30 seconds, and repeat. If you get dizzy, pause and move your head more slowly. If you’re still dizzy, stop.
3. Standing Marches Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. From here, lift one knee until your thigh is parallel to the floor (or as close to parallel as you can go) while keeping your torso straight and avoiding any leaning. Pause, then slowly return your foot to the floor. Perform 20 marches, alternating between legs with each march.
- Sit-to-Stands Stand tall with your back facing a sturdy chair and your feet hip-width apart. From here, sit back and slowly lower your hips onto the chair as gently as possible. Pause, and without swinging your torso, push through your heels to stand up. Perform 10 repetitions.
- Single-Leg Stands Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. From here, lift one foot an inch off the floor while keeping your torso straight and without leaning toward your planted foot. Hold for 10 to 15 seconds, then slowly return your foot to the floor. Repeat on the opposite leg. Perform five stands on each leg.
- Over-the-Shoulder Walks Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart at one end of a hallway or room. From here, look behind you over one shoulder. Maintaining this gaze, take four to five steps forward. Then, look over your other shoulder, and take four to five more steps forward. Perform five repetitions on each side.
What Else Can You Do?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends checking in with your doctor about your health and your risk of fall injuries. You can:
- Let your doctor know if you have fallen recently, feel unsteady on your feet, or feel lightheaded or dizzy often.
- Let your doctor know about all the medications you take, including prescription drugs, OTC meds and supplements. Your doctor will want to check if any of them increase your risk of falling. As always, do not stop or change medications unless your doctor instructs you to do so.
- Work with your doctor to manage any chronic conditions like diabetes or arthritis. The healthier you are overall, the lower your risk of falling.
- Get your eyes checked once a year. Vision problems can increase your risk of falling.
- Eat bone-strengthening foods with plenty of calcium and vitamin D.
- Keep your floors at home free of clutter, secure or remove loose rugs, and make sure there is plenty of light.
Carry on—steady on your feet!