Importance of Having a Good Balance at Older Age
The most dreaded accident connected to walking at older age is a fall with a bone fracture as a result. You probably have read somewhere already that one in three people over 65 years old fall at least once a year. Too often a hip fracture, for instance, can lead to permanent immobility, pneumonia or even to death. Muscles and bones are weakening as we grew older. Our vision and hearing is not that perfect anymore and even our ability to react promptly decreases a great deal, so all this adds to the lack of balance and thus to the risk of a fall.
At walking, weight is relocated from one to the other foot with every step. When one gets to the ground, the other lifts to move forward. This way we are touching the ground with one foot at all times and mostly with only one foot. A well-balanced and coordinated motion is usually automatic and indispensable for a secure walk, but for a secure sitting down and getting up, turning, as well.
At older age the good balance is getting less good, sometimes much faster than we can get used to and adapted to it. Knowing this, however, may prompt us to take steps early enough to maintain the good balance as long as it is possible even at old age.
How Good or How Bad My Balance Is?
To find out, you can ask your doctor to check your balance. Or you can get a general idea by checking it for yourself by one of the following methods or both of them combined.
The US police and that of some other countries often have used a walk and turn test as a sobriety test for drivers. Basically, you walk around 10-12 steps on a real or imagined line, so that you put your heels right in front of your other foot’s toes, then turn and do the other 10-12 steps.
There is another “test”-you stand on one leg, with your eyes closed, your arms at your side and the officer observes whether you lose your balance during 30 seconds. Do not panic if you can’t come nowhere near 30 seconds, most middle-aged people can’t, let alone at older age. That said, whatever your time is, it can be a starting point to measure a better result next time.
But, first things first.
Do You Have Enough Strength to Work on Your Balance?
By now, you might have recognized the need to do something about your balance and you even might have come up with a decision to improve it. However, that might be easier said that done. You see, to be able to actually work on your balance, you need to find out whether you are strong enough for that.
You may lack the strength in your lower limbs, as well. In that case, you will need to improve that first. How do you know if your strength is on a satisfactory level? Can you stand without any aid (a stick, a chair or someone’s hand) steadily for at least half a minute?
When you can, you are OK to slowly start working out. But, if not, you should try some leg strengthening exercises before you focus on improving balance.
A Few Strength Exercises for Elderly to Start With
You should try to repeat these at least twice, better three times a week:
-Sitting close towards the front end of a sturdy chair, with your legs at a 90 degrees angle, bend a little your legs under you, so your feet are closer to you than your knees, i.e. now the angle is less than 90 degrees, then return to the initial position.
-Still sitting on that chair, again close to the front end of it, lift one leg to a straight position, hold for a couple of seconds and put it back on the floor. Repeat 8-10 times. Do the same with your other leg.
-Sitting at the same position, on the same chair (or a similar other one, if you got bored with this one), you will stretch one leg, so that your whole foot ends up on the floor, but much further than your other foot. Then you imagine that you have a helium balloon tied to that foot which could raise it and you need to press it against the floor while dragging it back to align it with your other foot. Then the same with your other leg, 8-10 times each.
-Standing straight up from a chair and sitting back to it might be a challenge for you, so if it is, do it with a help of a stick first, until you achieve the smooth standing up, straightening up completely and sitting back. Be sure you do not just drop down onto the chair. Repeat 8-10 times.
-Now stand behind your sturdy chair. It should have a back high enough that you can hold on safely to it while doing the leg swing. You will swing, lift your leg to the side, so that your foot is about 15 cm above the floor and then put it back by your other leg. Repeat 8-10 times with each leg.
-Finally, stay behind your chair in an upright position. You will swing your leg again, but this time your right leg goes in front of you to the left, further than your left leg stands. You’ll need to lift your foot a little in order to make a smooth movement. Put your leg back to the initial position and repeat 8-10 times. Do it all with your left leg, as well.
So now, that you’ve regained your strength, comes the question:
Can a Poor Balance Really Be Improved?
Yes, it can. How far the improvement will go, depends on a background of the poor balance. Less improvement can be achieved if it is caused by illnesses which are still present, but it is not impossible. Treating the illness itself, when it is an option, can lead to improvement. Also, despite the existing arthritis, osteoporosis, heart disease, or other chronicle illnesses, the right choice of exercises can help. In a later post you’ll find these covered in more details.
If the poor balance is not exactly a result of illness or medical conditions, exercising can bring a tremendous improvement. These do not have to be some vigorous, gym-done exercises, even the simplest ones, done in your home can help, if done regularly.
The same movements which we used for testing the quality of our balance can be used to improve it, as well. Try walking in the way that you put your foot right in front of your other foot, so that heel of one touches the toes of the other. It might require some balancing to keep you upright, but the longer you practice it regularly, the better that balance will become.
You can also try to improve the time you can spend standing on one leg only. You should train both of your legs, of course. As with any other exercise, the more you practice it, the better you’ll become at it. However, if you are just starting, make sure to stand by a kitchen counter or a chair with a high back to be able to hold on it, if necessary. When you are already pretty good at it, you can go on with your eyes closed.
When you are done with this exercise, you can stretch the muscles on your calves by doing a movement that will at the same time be useful for your balance, as well: lift up your toes up to the point when you are practically standing on your heels, then go back standing on your whole feet. To actually benefit from this movement, you’ll want to repeat it at least a dozen times, but you can also do twice as much.
Another great exercise is to think of yourself as if you were a soldier, marching – but you’ll do it in place. Be careful, but lift your knees as high as you can. March as long as you can, but do not overdo it. When you manage to do it two dozen times with each leg-it is great. Again, if you are just starting, you should be close to something steady that you can grab or hold on if necessary.
Balance can be improved, even at older age. What is very important is to have the regularity of exercising, at least twice a week. Remember not to want to achieve everything right away, you’ll want to start slowly, with only a few repetitions, challenging yourself always just slightly more than before-that way your muscle strength and your coordination will improve which will add to your better balance. You’ll have a more confident walk, a better mobility and much better chances to prevent or avoid a fall or severe injuries.
What are your thoughts about balance? Have you experienced the lack of it yourself or in your loved ones? I’d like to hear about it in comments, please, do share it.
And, as always, feel free to reach out should you have questions and I’ll be happy to give you an answer to the best of my knowledge.
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