Maintaining and Improving Balance with Age

Falls can be very serious for seniors. According to the CDC, annually there are 3 million older people treated in emergency departments for fall-related injuries. Our caregivers look for potential tripping hazards and other injury risks when they visit a senior’s home, and can make corrections or recommend that a service provider is contacted. But there are even more ways to proactively prevent falls. It all comes down to balance.

According to the CDC, many people who experience a serious fall become afraid of falling, to the point that they let it impact their lifestyle. As they become less active, the muscle groups that are vital for balance may begin to atrophy, increasing the risk of another fall. It’s important to keep track of muscle strength and stay active in order to stay healthy.

Test Balance

Seniors should regularly keep note of their ability to balance in order to help establish a bench line for them to recognize whether they’re improving or worsening. Balance can be tested at home, on a flat, nonslip floor. The tester should cross their arms over their chest so they are tight to their center of gravity and stand on one foot. They should raise the foot of their non-dominant leg a few inches off the ground, so that it isn’t resting against their other leg. Note the time it takes to lose balance. Do the test once more with eyes closed as well. A University College London study of 53-year-old men and women found that those who could balance on one leg with their eyes closed for more than 10 seconds were more likely to survive over the next 13 years of the study.

Exercise to Improve Balance

Not using muscles is the easiest way to ensure that they deteriorate. Any exercise will ultimately improve balance in the long run, but there are some low-impact ways to get moving that are especially good for balance. Low impact means these are exercises that won’t put stress on joints.

Going for walks regularly is an easy way to add light exercise into a daily routine. If a more scenic view is desired, consider bringing along trekking poles to a hiking trail. These are great tools for keeping balance and stability, but a recent study from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that using poles has more beneficial effects on heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen consumption than a brisk walk without them.

Tai Chi is a series of slow, choreographed movements that’s a beginner-friendly way to work on balance. Seniors can look for local tai chi classes or find videos to follow along with at home. There are no special supplies or equipment needed to start practicing, as tai chi can even be done barefoot! “When you’re practicing the movements, you’re shifting your weight from one foot to the other to maintain balance,” says Michael Irwin, a professor of behavioral sciences and director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at University of California Los Angeles. “By doing (tai chi), you become more aware of the position of your body in space – which is something we become less aware of as we age.” This low-impact exercise is a great way to help train the body to be mindful of uneven surfaces and strengthen muscles that help maintain balance while shifting weight.

Yoga is another low-impact exercise that can be done in a class or at home, easily. Yoga mats can be inexpensive and yet again, no special shoes required… or any shoes for that matter. Yoga moves can always be modified for more of a challenge or less of one, which is great for keeping things interesting day to day. According to AARP, studies show that yoga helps slow bone thinning and can reduce the risk of osteoporosis.

Pilates is similar to yoga in that it’s another low-impact exercise with mat work, but in Pilates there is more emphasis on strength than flexibility. According to the Wall Street Journal, Joseph Pilates invented this exercise method during World War I while interned in Britain as an enemy alien. Some forms of Pilates do include the use of specialized equipment, in which case it would be best to find a class to join. “Some of the internees were bed-bound, so Pilates took springs and straps from the beds and attached them to the head and footboards, creating an early type of resistance-training machine” reports the Wall Street Journal. Because the practice was originally developed for bed-bound individuals, it has evolved into a great form of rehab today that even celebrities and professional athletes use.

Dress for Balance

Investing in a quality pair of shoes could do wonders for a senior’s balance. An appropriately snug fitting closed-toe shoe will always be a safer bet than loose, floppy sandals. Pants should be tailored as well, too long or loose and they become a tripping hazard.

The sooner seniors start making lifestyle changes to help them in the long run, the better. But it’s never too late to work on balance!