Maintaining Balance

Some exercises can help you avoid falls and stay on your feet.

by Polly Campbell

July / August 2018

Sometimes, Sydney Rice would trip over the curb or something in the house. Other times, she would simply stumble while walking.

“I’d trip over things or come up on a curb and not hit it right. I was falling all the time, regularly, like several times a month,” says Rice, 76, of Boston. “I was fine standing still, but it was when I was moving that I’d fall.”

As a younger person, Rice says, her balance was keen: She danced, rock-climbed and aquaplaned on a board pulled behind a motorboat. But as she aged she began falling regularly while walking.

She isn’t alone: After age 40 balance often takes a dive. Most people 50 and older can balance on one foot for only about 45 seconds, according to a study in the Journals of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, while people in their 30s and early 40s can easily perch on one foot for a minute or more.

 

Lowering the Risk of Falls

Falls are the leading cause of fatal injuries and trauma-related hospital admissions for adults 65 and older, according to the National Council on Aging. More than 2.8 million people are treated in emergency rooms with fall-related injuries each year.
But loss of balance and fall-related injuries do not have to be a part of aging.

Exercises and practices that strengthen the body and improve range of motion can help you maintain better balance in the years to come, says Jacqueline Sinke, a certified exercise physiologist in Portland, Oregon, who specializes in training adults 40 years and older.

“Balance is not just one thing,” Sinke says. “It’s a combination of all sorts of problems or a decline in one or several body systems. One issue can change multiple body functions, impacting balance.”

To remain upright you must be able to accurately see, feel and assess the surface below your feet, and then have the muscle strength and joint capacity to adapt and hold strong in the upright position. If one of these systems is out of sync—perhaps you can’t see well, or an inner ear disturbance or illness causes a problem in the way your brain perceives your physical orientation—you are at a higher risk of falling.

Even dehydration, medications and joint flexibility issues can influence your ability to remain standing, Sinke says. What’s more, she adds, it doesn’t help that many people spend the day hunched over computers: Such poor posture can affect range of motion, joint health and musculoskeletal strength, changing the way we walk and stand.

The good news? Practice and exercise can help improve balance no matter your age, says Christopher Travers, an exercise physiologist with the Cleveland Clinic Sports Health Center. “We work to increase skill and stability, and to rehabilitate and strengthen the muscles and condition the body so that people can catch themselves if they are falling,” he says.

 

Exercises for Balance

Specialists like Travers and Sinke begin by evaluating an individual’s balancing skills. They may ask the client to stand, feet touching side by side and hands at their sides, for 10 seconds, then to try standing heel to toe and to stand still with eyes closed.

Every person’s balance issues are different, Sinke says. A fitness trainer with special certification in balance and mobility, a physical therapist or a sports physiologist can help identify each individual’s factors contributing to poor balance and provide specific, at-home exercises that can help improve those functions.

Travers adds that the best way to build a better sense of balance is by performing small exercises throughout the day.

For example, try standing on one foot for 10 seconds at a time (increase the time as you become more adept) while washing your hands or reaching for a mug, then switch to the other leg. We often fall when we are in the middle of another task, Travers notes, so it’s important to practice our balance skills while we are doing something else.

As balance gradually improves, try “stork stands” by standing on one foot with the other leg pulled up into a triangle. A more difficult exercise, the one-legged squat, can also help boost balance. (Before trying any of these exercises, make sure you are in a safe place where you can prevent yourself from falling, and hold onto something stable if necessary.)

Core-strengthening exercises and those that improve flexibility around the hip abductors also improve posture and stability.

For example, do planks with your body positioned about six inches above the floor, supported by your hands (or elbows) and toes. By strengthening the core muscles, you can improve your posture and strengthen the body’s upright position.

To exercise the hip abductor muscles, try kneeling on the right knee with toes facing down, and left knee bent and over the ankle in a 90-degree position. Place hands on left thigh and press hips forward until there’s tension in the front right hip. Hold for 30 seconds and switch legs.

Rice developed better balance by walking while extending a ball in front of her. She also walked with her head turned to the left and then the right, which is “much more difficult than you think,” she says.

Rice also regularly stands on one foot while brushing her teeth and combing her hair, and even while waiting for the bus. These practices have paid off.

“I haven’t tripped in months,” she says. “At first, I did, but I got to where I was able to catch myself. Now I no longer trip at all.”

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