Most people do not think much about practicing their balance, but it is a good idea to do so. The same way that you walk to strengthen your heart, lungs and overall health, you should practice maintaining your balance.
As we age, our balance declines, which can increase the risk of falling. More than one in three individuals age 65 years or older falls each year. This risk only increases with age. A simple fall can cause a serious fracture of the hip, pelvis, spine, arm, hand or ankle, which can lead to hospitalization, disability, loss of independence and even death.
How Balance Works
Balance is the ability to distribute your weight in a way that enables you to hold a steady position or move at will without falling. It is determined by a complex combination of muscle strength, visual inputs, the inner ear and the work of specialized receptors in the nerves of your joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons that orient you in relation to other objects. All of these factors are sorted out in the sensory cortex of your brain, which takes in all of this information and gives you balance. Aging dulls these neurological pathways and causes individuals to gradually become less stable on their feet.
Poor balance can also lead to a vicious cycle of inactivity. For some individuals, if they feel a little unsteady, they end up curtailing certain activities. If they are inactive, they are not challenging their balance systems or using their muscles. As a result, both balance and strength decline. Simple acts, like strolling through a grocery store or getting up from a chair, become trickier. This can shake their confidence and cause them to become even less active.
If you have a balance problem that is not tied to illness, medication or some other specific cause, simple exercises may help preserve and improve your balance. Some basic exercises you can do anytime include:
- One-legged stands: Stand on one foot for 30 seconds or longer, then switch to the other foot. You can do this while brushing your teeth or even while waiting in line somewhere. In the beginning, you might want to have a wall or chair to hold on to.
- Heel rises: While standing, rise up on your toes, lifting your heel as high as you can. Then drop back to the starting position and repeat the process 10 to 20 times. You can make this more difficult by holding light hand weights.
- Heel-toe walk: Take 20 steps and, with every step, touch your heel to your toe on your opposite foot. Keep your focus straight ahead instead of looking down at your feet.
- Sit-to-stand: Without using your hands, get up from a straight-backed chair and sit back down 10 to 20 times. This improves balance and leg strength.
Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of "The Savvy Living” book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization’s official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.