Falls are serious events that can lead to several unwanted outcomes. Falls are the leading cause of hip fractures and serious brain injuries. However, you will reduce the risk of falling if you improve your balance.
What does ‘Good balance’ mean? Balance is a complex cooperation among several systems in our body: muscular strength, range of motion of our joints, cognitive abilities, inner ear mechanisms that alert us to changes in body position and terrain we are navigating and movement patterns that connect all systems.
Improving balance is the key to reducing or eliminating falls. As we age, we lose muscle strength, tone, and our vision decreases; this can all lead to a fall. Improving balance improves your equilibrium, muscular strength, joint dynamics, core stability and neuromuscular functions. As we approach middle age, our balance becomes harder to maintain. It’s important to know that our balance systems can be improved at any age. It is never too late to make the necessary changes.
Good balance allows us to maintain stability as we shift our weight. The majority of falls in seniors take place in the home doing everyday tasks. Catching their foot on a table leg or carpet is enough to cause a fall. Improving your ability to shift your weight onto one lower extremity while raising the other, in order to clear the obstacle, will allow you to remain upright.
Improving Your Balance
Researchers in France tabulated the results of 17 trials involving over 4300 seniors. They concluded that exercise to improve balance was extremely effective in reducing falls. Their report found: injuries were reduced by 37%, serious injuries by 43% and broken bones by 61%.
A simple test of your balance might be while you are walking up and down a set of stairs. Do you need to hold onto the banister? On the way down do you land heavily onto the next step? Does it feel like you are dropping onto the step below? Does it feel like you have poor control of the descent and need to lean on the banister? If the answer is yes to either one, then you need to improve your balance through strength, range and proper technique. You will be surprised how important proper technique is, to make the descent easier.
Another simple test (from the ‘Berg Balance Test’) is, to close your eyes and maintain your balance while your feet are close to each other for 10 sec. Make sure that you have something you might grab on to, in case you lose your balance. This test is crucial for those who will need to get up in the dark and walk to the bathroom. Countless falls take place during this transition.
Count the number of seconds that you can maintain your balance. As we age we might diminish our equilibrium and core strength, key components to maintaining good posture, good balance while reducing the risk of falls.
The key to a problem specific balance program is to combine it with an overall exercise program that will improve both your balance and strength. There are many benefits to a good balance and exercise program.
It will promote quicker reaction times. As we age our reaction times diminishes. These changes create dangerous situations while driving, walking, doing chores around the house or everyday functions. Quicker reaction times will help to keep you upright.
A balance program will include exercises that improve joint mobility. The majority of seniors do not get enough exercise, and the result is poor joint mobility. As an example, in order to climb stairs you will need to be able to move your knees over and even better, past your shoelaces and toes. In order to descend stairs you will need to be able to bend your knee to about 60 degrees of flexion. As a reference: most of the times, when you sit, your knees will be bent at 90 degrees of flexion.
Balance programs will increase muscle strength. Strengthening muscles of our legs, torso and arms decreases the risk of falls as our muscles will help to brace ourselves if we begin to fall. Weak muscles are the primary cause of most falls in seniors.
A good balance program will improve the health of your bones. Strong bones are the stabilizing force that helps keep us upright. Stronger bones also mean fewer fractures. Unfortunately, our bones weaken over time and a good program will work to increase their strength and help to reduce the risk of fractures and falls.
Exercise helps to improve our cognitive function. Through movement and active lifestyle, our brains are fed with increased blood and oxygen flow which is vital to keeping a sharp mind. A healthy body leads to a healthy mind.
Improving balance and strength can increase your self-confidence, promote independence and decrease fears of being alone. It’s important to recognize that an improved body will have big reverberations on your state of mind. Feeling confident, self-assured and safe is a very large bonus factor in improving your balance.
Exercises to Improve Balance
Here are a few exercises that you can do to improve your balance.
- Stand sideways beside a counter, so that you have support if you need it. If able, try this without the support. Shift your weight onto the foot furthest away from the counter. Lift your foot closest to the counter so it is slightly behind you. See how long you can hold it. In the beginning, try for 5 seconds and each day gradually increase the time you are balancing on one foot. Turn around and now do the other leg the same.
- At the bottom of a set of stairs, hold the banister and step up onto the first step and then step back down. Repeat on one leg ten times before switching legs.
- While facing sideways on the last step of the stairs, step down onto the floor and then step up onto the first step. Repeat ten times before switching legs.
It’s never too late to improve your balance. It’s time to stop living with the fear of a fall and be proactive with your health. Muscle strength can improve at any age, and most falls are preventable. However, it’s up to you to make the first move. Work with a certified physiotherapist to improve your balance, strength and active lifestyle.