Tips for better balance

Published 9:21 am Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Herald guest column

When we’re young, we generally take our balancing skills for granted. As we get older, however, we find that our balance isn’t what it used to be. The consequences of losing our ability to balance are significant. Falls are the leading cause of injury for older adults. Every year, 30 to 50 percent of people over age 65 sustain a fall; many never recover completely. Even less serious falls can result in physical adaptations that negatively impact the quality of life.

While some effects of aging — such as impaired vision, reduced reflex speed and decreased sensitivity of skin receptors — can impair balance and coordination, poor balance is not inevitable. Many physically fit older adults practice the same balance exercises as recovery strategies as younger adults and, as a result, are generally better at controlling their balance than their inactive peers.

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How can you maintain good balancing skills? Here are some tips and balance exercises:

1. Improve your cardiovascular fitness. Improvements in this area will contribute to better gait, cardiovascular health, weight control, motor control, self-confidence and other factors that impact and strengthen your balance.

2. Practice single-leg standing, or yoga balancing postures. Start by standing on a solid floor and a hand on the wall. Simply lift your outside foot off the floor, to challenge yourself close your eyes and the third step pull your hand away from the wall. Start with one of these and progress through as you feel comfortable. You can take this one step farther and swing your outside leg front and back with eyes closed and see how the body responses to finding balance.

3. Try tai chi or yoga classes. These offer gradual and consistent balance exercises and training.

4. Practice walking faster and stepping over objects in your path. This will help improve speed and decrease hesitancy.

5. Improve your flexibility. Take stretching classes and learn how to do a stretching routine at home. Stretching exercises help increase your range of motion, particularly at the shoulder, torso, hip and ankle. Using a fitness ball will contribute to better pelvic mobility.

6. Improve overall strength. Lower-leg strength is particularly important for walking, maintaining dynamic balance and preventing falls. With the aid of a fitness professional, develop a complete strength program that will help you both reduce falls and recover from them.

7. Build your self-confidence. Fitness programs increase your confidence and decrease your fear and apprehension about falling, thereby reducing your overall muscle tension. Develop your skills and your confidence by doing drills in which you negotiate curbs and stairs, and walk along a taped line while carrying cups of water.

8. Consult your physician. In some cases, custom-made orthotics (devices worn inside shoes) can help with balance. Also, your doctor will know if any medication you are taking may be affecting your balance.

Keep safety in mind as you practice balance exercises and training. Make sure walls, chairs or other objects are nearby to use for support, and do not practice balance exercises that are too challenging for you without the help of a professional.

It is important to participate in physical activity program that includes cardiovascular fitness, strength training, flexibility workouts, and coordination work and balance exercises.

Source: San Diego physical therapist Deborah Ellison, PT an expert in functional exercise design.