Better Balance and Preventing Falls: The Big Picture

Whether walking down the street, on the tennis court, or going down stairs – keeping your balance is vital for everyday living. With care, attention and effort you can substantially improve your balance and prevent falls.

Balance is the ability to maintain the body’s position over its base of support, whether stationary or moving. Good balance is not just about standing on one leg! It requires successful integration of your body’s key systems:

Your Nervous System is your body’s command center with billions of cells processing information, and then responding to it. Your eyes see, and provide information about position and movement. Your inner ear monitors head movement and the body’s position in space. And muscle receptors monitor your contact with other objects, and detect limb and body movement.

Then your Musculoskeletal System kicks in, which is why muscle strength is vital. If your legs are weak, walking speed and stride length are affected. If your hip muscles are weak, rising from a chair, climbing stairs, and walking is more difficult. Your core– from below your chest to your pelvis – is your center of gravity and must be operating efficiently for the other muscle groups to work; it also keeps your spine stable.

Based on signals from the sensory systems, your brain sends messages to your muscles which make the necessary adjustments to maintain balance. If any of these systems are not working properly, your body’s ability to balance decreases, and your risk of falling increases.

Balance and Preventing Falls: An essential checklist.

Fifty percent of all falls occur during walking. If you seriously consider each factor on this list, you are way ahead of the game in your quest to prevent falling, by strengthening your body, your environment, and your awareness. Here goes:

  • Physical environment. Does your home have a reasonable flow? Do you have objects in the way as you walk around? Loose throw rugs? Frail furniture? Rickety chairs? Electronic cords sticking out? What about the bathroom – do you have grab bars and non-skid mats? Handrails on the stairs? Clutter on the floor? Is your floor polish slippery? Do you clean up spills immediately? What about lighting – is your home well-lit, including hallways, stairwells and closets? Do you have night-lights, and flashlights at the ready?
  • Muscular strength. One is never too old to strengthen muscles. Ninety-year olds have been tested and shown to increase muscle strength and bone mass by using light weights for just six weeks. Thirty minutes, twice a week is not much considering there are 168 hours in a week! And walk. Walk with purpose, walk uphill. Take the stairs.If you are sitting in a chair, with feet planted firmly on the ground, can you stand up without using your hands and not leaning all the way forward? This is a test of your lower body strength. (This is a ‘chair squat’, one of my all-time favorite lower body exercises.)
  • Bone Mass. Bones are like bricks, and they start to disintegrate as we age. If your bone mass is low, you must load the bone with weights and weight-bearing exercise to build it up. (Calcium and vitamin D are not enough!)
  • Balance and gait. Do some balance exercises; see below. Stand on one leg while you’re stirring the soup, watching television, on line at the market. Try some Tai Chi, excellent for strength, calmness and balance.
  • Alcohol. Yes, alcohol can be very pleasurable, and a single serving daily has been proven to improve heart health. But double and triple that and it’s dangerous for our balance, particularly as we get older.
  • Medications. Doctors don’t always consider balance when they prescribe medications! Are you on a drug that causes sleepiness? Alters your mood? Blood pressure? Sedatives, painkillers, antidepressants, diuretics: Be sure your medical ‘cocktail’ doesn’t come with a side effect that contributes to a fall.
  • Vision. Our eyes help our brain know where we are in space. Cataracts, macular degeneration and other impaired vision affect our balance. Have your eyes checked often, particularly key if you wear bifocals.
  • Ear function. Your inner ears are filled with fluid that plays a key role in balance. When your head moves, this fluid sloshes against receptors that signal the brain. Close your eyes and march in place for one minute. Have you moved more than a foot to the right or left? Could be an ear problem. Tell your doctor.
  • Footwear. Change your shoes! Get rid of high heels. You want sturdy supportive shoes of canvas or leather with laces or Velcro. You don’t want soles so thick that you can’t feel the ground. Mules and open-backed shoes are unstable. Ditch shoes that are falling apart.

So how do you train for better balance and muscle strength? With supervision, of course!

1. Start with static balance, and teach the body to make appropriate balance responses while standing still. Change your foot position. Stand on your toes. Stand on one leg.

2. Add dynamic balance exercises to target the sensory systems, and disturb the center of gravity. Use unstable surfaces: Airex balance pads. Stability balls. Bosu balls. Foam Rollers.

TWO SIMPLE BALANCE EXERCISES.

A. Stand next to a sturdy support. Lift your right leg up slightly, relax your shoulders, bring your belly button into your spine, breathe easy and hold for ten –twenty seconds. Switch legs. TO make this more difficult, hold the leg up and bend your opposite knee up and down five times. This also strengthens your joints, core and lower body musculature.

B. Try walking on your heels. Keep the balls of your foot lifted up off the floor, and your body as erect as you can. Begin along a wall so you can hold on if need be. Keep your chest up and avoid bending at the waist.

Wherever you live, you cannot beat the investment in a personal trainer who specializes in senior fitness to show you or your loved one how to do fundamental strength and balance exercises. You don’t need fancy machines, or a gym membership. For the price you pay for a mediocre dinner, you get valuable guidance that can help you live longer, without injury or a fall.

Consistent balance and strength training sharpens your senses, preserves your body and prevent falls. Vital for healthy aging, and for life!

Remember, nothing on this site should be considered medical advice. Always consult your doctor.

Bio: Anne Etra is a freelance writer who can be reached at http://www.etrawords.com.

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