If you’re like me, you never gave a thought to your sense of balance when you were younger. As a child you could skip, hop, play twister…basically do whatever you wanted physically without fear. But some of us have discovered that this wonderful ability has diminished with age. Either we have experienced the changes ourselves, or we know a friend or loved one who is beginning to have emerging balance challenges.
What causes us to lose our ability to be as well balanced now as we were when we were younger? The answer is a bit complicated because there are many factors and combinations of factors that can affect us. Some of these include, but are not limited to: medications, the aging process, disease processes, and problems with the inner ear or eyes.
Is there anything that can be done to improve our balance as we age? The answer is yes! First, it is important to note that balance and problems with dizziness (which are not necessarily the same thing) must be reported to your doctor or health care professional so that proper testing can be performed. The following are options you should consider if you want to improve your balance.
1. Fitness Training. Strength is a big factor in retaining and regaining our ability to be balanced during our daily activities. Strong legs and a strong core are necessary, especially as we age and tend to loose muscle mass. Talk to a personal trainer or physical therapist to get an individualized fitness program designed to take into account your current fitness level, goals, and any special concerns you might have. There are also many books and DVDs available that offer excellent programs but remember, if you are doing the training on your own you should talk to your doctor or health care provider before you proceed.
2. Flexibility Training. Flexibility may be the most neglected aspect of a fitness program for people who exercise on their own. Flexibility is equally as important to balance as strength is. Because we tend to do the same types of things on most days, such as reaching forward and sitting, we use the same muscles most of the time and leave opposing muscles unused. This causes imbalances in our muscles. When your muscles are tight, you move rigidly. Flexibility training allows you to regain that lost synergy between opposing muscles. Daily stretching is important and becomes critical as we age. Yoga is an excellent way to regain flexibility as is Tai Chi. It is important to learn how to stretch safely and effectively.
3. Balance Training. The Center for Disease Control reports that one out of three adults aged 65 and over falls each year. One of the reasons this occurs is that as people age they often experience diminished balance. One way to improve balance is to challenge it. For someone with only mild balance difficulties, there are many exercises you can perform at home to challenge your balance. Standing on one leg, tandem standing (heel to toe in a straight line), standing with feet together and eyes closed or standing on a soft surface are a few of those exercises. Be sure that you have set up a safe area to practice. You might want to have a sturdy chair in front of you and a corner wall behind you for instance. For someone with more serious balance issues, working with a professional who has been trained in understanding the aging process, disease progressions, and who has a thorough understanding of progressing the activities in a safe and effective way would be a wise choice. Training programs can be found at community centers, fitness clubs or with personal trainers at home.
The most important (and often the most difficult) thing is to just get started. If you can’t manage working on strength, flexibility, and balance 5 days a week, start with 3 or even 2. If you don’t want to set aside an hour to work out, try 30 minutes. Many people find they can exercise more easily if they are watching television or listening to music. Try working out with a friend or joining a club to get inspired. One thing is certain, neglecting these important aspects of your body’s health will have a negative impact on your life as you age.
Most people find that once they do get started, they begin to feel better which in turn makes them want to exercise even more. So go ahead and give it a try!