Updated: Feb 25, 2020
One crucial component of aging gracefully (and safely) is balance. Not only does a keen sense of balance work in tandem with your own coordination and flexibility to prevent falls, but it helps you feel confident about staying active, exercising, and getting out as you age.
Oftentimes, older adults experience balance problems following a stroke, lower extremity or hip fracture, inner ear condition, or simply as age-related weakness and degeneration occur. Balance, luckily, is not something you can lose forever. With the right mindset and dedicated attention, you can regain, strengthen, and hone a good sense of balance for years to come.
What is “balance” exactly? For most of us, you might think of balance as simply the ability to correct yourself when you trip, stumble, or are pushed off your center of gravity. Physiologically speaking, balance actually incorporates cues from your eyes (what you see around you), your joints and bones (what you feel your body doing in motion), and possibly most importantly, your inner ear (which communicates with your brain the position of your head as it relates to the space and pull of gravity around you). Balance is the unequivocal control over your body’s own motion and position when sitting or standing.
If you are an adult and you experience balance problems, know that you are not alone. According to the National Institute of Senior Health, over 33 million adults saw a doctor for balance or dizziness issues in 2008. For older adults especially, finding creative, day to day ways to practice and bolster a sense of balance significantly increases their overall health, independence, and well being. Don’t miss these 8 great ideas:
Low-impact exercise not only lowers risk for heart disease, cognitive decline, cancer, and other debilitating illnesses, but it reinforces good balance technique as well. Everything from riding a bike to hiking, dancing, playing tennis and golf, even taking your dog for a brisk walk involves coordination from various bones, joints, and muscle groups. It’s kind of like the saying, “Use it so you don’t lose it.” The more active you stay, the more you employ your sense of balance, thus making it stronger.
Exercising your sense of balance is easy with, well, balance tools! A stability ball (large, inflatable rubber exercise ball), low balance beam, a balance wand, and an inflatable balance cushion are just a few balance tools out there for sitting, holding, standing, and walking on which can challenge and strengthens a senior’s sense of balance. Always practice on balance tools in the company of a guided instructor or someone who can serve as a stable spotter to help prevent falls.
Practice Good Posture
Bad posture overtime can lead to permanent curvature of the back, throwing your center of gravity off and disrupting your sense of balance. Many elderly people will walk slightly hunched with their feet spread wider apart because this feigns a better sense of balance. Sitting and standing upright, however, are vital to keeping core and back muscles limber, elongated, and flexible to support good, balanced body mechanics.
Check Drug Side Effects
All your physical efforts to regain and strengthen balance may be negated by the side effects of specific medicines you are taking. So often you may disregard the notice that comes with your prescription, but checking to see if fatigue, dizziness, or confusion are on the list of side effects can help you have a proactive conversation with your doctor about retaining balance while staying healthy.
Get Your Vision Checked
One of the biggest fall prevention recommendations is to get your eyes checked to make sure you are seeing correctly. Balance is in part triggered by the spatial awareness of what your eyes see around you. Bad vision or outdated eyewear can negatively impact your sense of vision and make it harder and more unsafe in general to get around.
Wear Proper Shoes
A sense of balance requires a bit of finding a balance in the foot wear you choose. Seniors especially want to avoid extremely sticky shoes with rubber traction on the bottom because they are more likely to get caught on common flooring surfaces and throw balance off. Slick or slippery-bottomed shoes can do the same by making feet slide and slip when walking. Older adults wants to track down proper fitting smooth bottom shoes that stabilize strong ankle and foot motion but don’t make them more susceptible to falls.
Enhancing flexibility through the gentle stretching and deep breathing of yoga practice can translate into greater balance as well. Senior yoga classes (or beginner’s or chair yoga) offer older adults the opportunity to stretch and strengthen muscles and practice balance by assuming guided positions that alternate weight-bearing feet, and help build bone mass too.
Oftentimes, general weakening of the ankle and leg bones and connective muscles and tendons can also weaken an elderly person’s sense of balance. Strength training the core, leg, feet, and arm muscles doesn’t have to mean turning into a body builder. Light weight lifting, wearing arm and ankle weights when exercising, and eating a healthy diet rich with protein and calcium can help improve muscle and bone strength and thus dynamic (moving) and static (still) balance.
Senior centers and local gyms may offer specialty fitness classes for older adults that are fun, motivational, and help exercise your sense of balance. Following an injury or illness, you doctor may recommend physical therapy or some other fitness regimen to help reinstall your balance and get you moving again. No matter what you do, balance will always be one of the keys to longevity and injury prevention as you get older.