Improving your balance as you age
Balance is a complicated thing. It involves information from our eyes, inner ears and nerve endings around our body in our joints and muscles all being co-ordinated by our brain to help us stay upright. We also need good muscle strength. As we age there is a natural decline in all these areas. If any of these are not functioning properly we can lose our balance, simply when walking or trying to stand up. Balance is necessary to maintain an independent and autonomous life.
We know the risk of falling increases as we age and that these falls can sometimes have devastating consequences. Studies show that one in three people over 65 (and not living in a nursing home) experience a fall at least once a year and 10-15% of these result in a serious injury like a fracture. Not only does a fall often immobilize someone for a period of time but it can also significantly affect their confidence.
And it’s not only as we age. Lack of exercise, alcohol, neuropathy (nerve damage) in the legs, obesity, even wearing the wrong glasses can interfere with balance.
So how do we improve our balance. Can we improve our balance and by how much? Balance can be measured which means improvements can be easily seen. Tests are based around an individual’s current fitness and mobility levels. Baseline information is taken and an exercise programme is given for a period of time before retesting.
Exercise provides many advantages in improving balance and quality of life. Researchers say that while strength and cardiovascular training are important and should be done several times a week, exercises designed to improve your balance are even more critical and should be practiced every day.
Here are some simple balance exercises to try out at home.
- Sit to Stand – Sitting upright in a chair with your knees bent to about 90 degrees and your feet under your knees. Put your arms out in front and stand up using your leg muscles. Return slowly to sitting. How many of these can you comfortably do?
- Single leg stance – Start by standing with your feel hip width apart. Transfer your weight to one leg and lift the other leg in front of you a little. Try to hold that position. How long can you hold on each leg.
- Heel to Toe walking – think of walking on a tightrope. Put your arms out to the side and place one foot directly in front of the other. Walk forwards repeating this with each leg. One heel goes directly in front of the other foot. Try to look ahead and not down.
- Lunges – This is a little more advanced and therefore will need more consideration and ability. Start in the standing position with your hands on your hips. Place one leg forward and bend both knees so the back knee is moving towards the ground. Try to bend the front knee so the thigh gets to a horizontal position if you can. From there, push up and back to the standing position. Repeat to the opposite side. Is this exercise easier on one side?
It’s important to maintain a good centre of gravity when doing these exercises. Imagine someone walking up a hill. Often they lean into the hill when in fact they should lean away from the hill and more over their feet. The same is true for all exercises. Be aware of your body position relative to your feet.
When thinking about your centre of gravity its always easier if you understand your personal biomechanics. Injuries and habits overtime often cause us to develop movement patterns that aren’t the best for us. The last exercise, the lunge, can often display this. A detailed assessment by an appropriately trained health professional can give you information that will help to tailor your exercises even more specifically.
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