One of the leading causes of injury in people over 60 is falling. Balance is maintained by sensory information from three systems: vision; proprioception (touch sensors in the feet, trunk and spine); and the vestibular system (inner ear) (http://vestibular.org/node/2).
Injuries and diseases to these systems can affect sensory input and balance. For example, cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration affect vision; diabetic neuropathy affects vision and proprioception; and benign tumours, viral infections and autoimmune inner ear disease affect the vestibular system. Less muscle mass, more fat or postural changes begin to naturally occur around age 40 and can impact balance. Therefore, people of all ages and fitness levels can benefit from improving their balance.
Poor balance can lead to falls, which can result in fractures, especially if you have osteoporosis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of five hip fracture patients die from complications within a year of breaking a hip. Weak bones and weak muscles may be caused by a sedentary lifestyle, medical conditions, inadequate nutrition or a combination of all three.
The good news is there are steps you can take to improve your balance. The first is to see your medical doctor if you feel your balance has declined. Your doctor may be able to identify the cause and treat you for any health-related issues.
Your doctor may want to test you for nutritional deficiencies and may recommend dietary changes or supplements. If, for example, your diet is high in salty food, protein from animal sources or caffeinated beverages, you may be losing excess calcium from your bones. Excessive alcohol consumption is also a risk factor for osteoporosis and high cola consumption is correlated with bone mineral loss in females. Getting sufficient calcium from food and vitamin D from food or natural sunlight may help offset some of the damage.
Weight bearing exercise creates a mechanical load that sends signals to the bone-forming cells to build new bone tissue. Did you know that the cells in your skeleton regenerate and that your skeleton is completely replaced every 10 years or so? Weight-bearing exercise also strengthens your muscles. With strong muscles, you’re less likely to fall; with strong bones, if you do fall, you’re less likely to fracture a bone. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, walking makes you work against gravity while standing upright and is therefore an excellent form of weight-bearing exercise.
There are many kinds of exercises specifically aimed at improving your balance. Based on your current ability level, choose some exercises from my suggestions:
Beginner: 1) Sit on a chair and stand up without using your arms for support. 2) Shift your weight while standing on both feet. 3) Stand on one leg while holding the back of a chair. Try it without holding on. Place your hands on your hips. How many seconds can you hold this position? Make it more challenging by doing upper body exercises at the same time, such as bicep curls with dumbbells.
Intermediate: 1) Stand up from seated position on a bench or chair on one leg only. You can extend your arms forward to assist with your balance. Once you’re standing, carefully return to a seated position by lowering yourself on the same leg. Try this several times on each leg. 2) Change your base of support by placing your feet different distances apart while performing upper body exercises. The closer together you place your feet; the more you must work to maintain your balance. 3) Stand on one foot. Place the sole of your other foot against the inner calf or thigh of your standing leg. Place your palms together at chest level. Hold that position for up to thirty seconds then switch sides.
Advanced: 1) Squat as low as you can on one leg, then stand up. Repeat several times per leg. 2) Squat on both legs on a BOSU ball (looks like a half ball). For maximum instability and challenge, squat on an inverted BOSU ball. 3) Step, jump or hop forwards, side to side or backwards as quickly as possible along an agility ladder.
You can’t prevent every fall, but you can reduce your risk. Improving your lifestyle can help, regardless of your age. So can avoiding hazards such as rugs and icy patches or using a walking aid if needed. And if you trip or slip but have optimized your sense of balance, you may be able to land on your feet. That’s the power of balance.