How to Improve Balance: 6 Steps for Seniors
One in every three adults over age 65 fall each year, and 20-30% of those falls will result in moderate to severe injuries. (Source: Centers for Disease Control) Many people who fall develop a fear of falling again that can limit their activity and mobility. To stay mobile and indpendent as you age, maintaining your balance is a must. If your balance is beginning to waver, check out these six steps to improve balance that can help you feel more stable and secure.
1. Check your vision. Your brain uses visual cues from your surroundings to help balance your body. Don't believe it? Find your balance on one leg, then close your eyes; you'll feel the difference those visual cues make. As you age, cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration and other vision problems can interfere with the brain's ability to take cues from the environment. Getting your vision checked and corrected is the first step toward maintaining your balance.
2. Get your ears checked. Deep inside your ears is a complex system of bone and tissue called the vestibular system that is another key actor in your body's balance system. A series of canals helps detect when the head and body move and communicates that information back to the brain. The brain can then communicate to the muscles how to adjust to the movement to maintain balance. Feelings of dizziness, vertigo, nausea or ringing in the ears can all be signs of an inner ear related balance disorder. The NIH has a thorough description of balance disorders here.
3. Ask your doctor about your medications. Over 200 medications are known to cause balance disorders, often by causing temporary or permanent damage to the vestibular system in the ears. Certain antibiotics, blood pressure medications and even aspirin-based pain relievers can damage the balance systems in the ears. Your doctor or pharmacist will be able to review your medications and tell you if your prescriptions may be interfering with your balance.
4. Stabilize your core. You don't need washboard abs to maintain your balance, but a strong core is essential for keeping you stable as you sit, stand and move. Your abdominals consist of several layers of muscle, with the muscle fibers running in all different directions--horizontal, vertical and even opposing diagonals. When they're toned and strong, these muscles form a tight corset that supports the spine and provides a base of support for the motion of your limbs. Simple core stabilization exercises will help you develop that base of support.
5. Strengthen your lower body. Strong muscles in your legs and rear end provide the confident stride of a well-balanced senior. You'll need strong muscles in your thighs and glutes to get in and out of chairs, to climb stairs and to navigate curbs and uneven surfaces with confidence. As we age, we lose muscle mass at an alarming rate of 1/2 pound per year--that is, unless we're actively working to maintain muscle. Regular resistance training can even enhance bathroom safety in older adults.
6. Practice balance challenges. Once you've tackled the basics of vision, inner ear issues, medications, and core and lower body strength, it's time to add balance challenges to your exercise routine. Begin with simple moves like standing on one leg (with a chair or counter within easy reach in case you need it for support). Advance to more complex balance moves like walking heel to toe or lifting your knees as you walk.
Losing your balance as you age is not a given. These six simple steps can help you maintain your balance as you walk, climb stairs and move through your day. You'll navigate your surroundings with more confidence and security knowing that your brain is accessing cues from your senses and your body has the strength and stability to maintain a steady balance.
(photo credit: D. Lee Peffer II)
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