When we think about our ability to balance, we can’t really put a finger on how or why we can balance; it’s an automatic and unconscious process. Until a person falls, balance isn’t really thought of as being that important. But falling is a significant and traumatic experience, espe- cially for older adults and can result in serious injury. Regardless of injury, a fall or near fall brings about conscious fear and concern—the fear of falling is the leading risk factor for actu- ally falling!
Aging usually means the body gets less physical activity, so bones and muscles don’t retain their strength and resilience. Motor skills are weakened—agility and coordination start to de- cline—as well as reduced visual acuity, somatosensory (the sense of physical body perception in space) decline and weakening of the body’s vestibular system (the sensory mechanism in the inner ear that detects head movement and helps control balance).
Exercise can’t correct all the changes that impair balance but it can help to improve posture, increase muscle strength and flexibility, and help agility and coordination. Balance training helps build and strengthen the foot, ankle, calf, shin and core along with building endurance in the lower leg muscles. Some simple exercises can be done to improve your balance skills:
- MARCH WITH HEAD TURNS - This helps improve the ability to scan your surroundings and move your head and eyes appropriately while walking and also increases endurance, another important skill in balance. Start by marching in place and turn your head side to side, matching the head turns with the rhythm of your steps. Start at 30 seconds and in- crease to 2 minutes.
- HIP AND BACK EXTENSION - This exercise is a combination hip flexor stretch and spine extension. Stand with a chair back to your side; place the nearest hand on for support. Extend the far straight leg back and point the toes to touch the floor, keeping your weight on the inside leg. Reach the outside arm up overhead, moving the shoulders back and con- tract your shoulder blades, opening the chest. This stretches the hips and extends the spine. Repeat on the other side.
- SIT TO STAND - This helps to improve lower-body strength and endurance. Sit forward in a straight-back chair with your arms crossed over the chest or on thighs if you need help standing. Eyes look forward as you stand up and sit down as many times as you can. This exercise helps when you’re reaching down to pick something up off the floor.
- BEND AND REACH - This exercise can be done with or without a hand weight. Stand with feet hip-width apart and squat down while reaching down to one side. Return to standing and reach the same arm up and across your body like you were putting something up on a high shelf. Repeat on the other side.
- STAND WITH ONE FOOT ON A BALL - This exercise helps with dynamic or moving balance while standing on one leg. With a high-back chair to your side for support, lift your outside leg and place your foot on a 12 in. medicine ball; hold for 5-15 seconds. Repeat with the opposite side.
These basic exercises help everyone who feels that they can use a little help with balance that has become a little more challenging. Balance training is a constant process to help build more strength and coordination in your body and also serves as a boost to your confidence!
Adapted from the Balance Training Course by S. Bovre and FallProof by D. Rose.