Developing Better Balance

When we were young, we loved falling in love, but now that we are older, the only falling we do is on our faces. Approximately one-third of older adults fall every year according to self-reported falls.  Many, who fall, do not report the falls to their doctors. UCLA Health and Healthy Years offers several common factors related to falls: (1) dizziness from cardiovascular and psychiatric medications, (2) impaired vision from eye diseases like glaucoma (3) joint stiffness, and (4) neuro-muscular conditions like Parkinson’s disease. (5) We can add vitamin D deficiency, which contributes to osteoporosis. Low vitamin D makes you vulnerable to falls and broken bones. (6) However, the major reason for falling is simply “aging.”

Aging causes us older folks to lose muscle mass. Heather Bennett Schickedanz, MD, of the Olive View-UCLA Medical Center says, “Less muscle means that people fatigue more easily, and it becomes even harder to move around and maintain balance and coordination.”

Once we fall, we are more likely to fall again, which increases the chances for head trauma, hip fractures, and breaks, which ultimately can lead to an earlier death. Ironically, the fear of falling causes older folks to isolate themselves by staying in. That, in turn, makes them less likely to exercise, which creates further muscle loss, stiffness, and overall functional decline. The long-term goal is to improve muscle strength and balancing skills. Dr. Schickedanz concludes, “Strength and balance training not only lowers your fall risk, but is good for your physical and mental health and can increase your confidence to become more active.”

Six Ways to Better Balance

Dance Therapy: One particular therapy called Healthy-Steps uses a combination of low-impact dance steps choreographed to music.  Participants in the program improved both their walking speed and balancing skills. You may find local classes at www.gohealthysteps.com.

Tai Chi: This ancient form of martial arts involves slow, controlled, dance-like movements that are nonimpact or robust and are ideal for people who cannot do aerobic or high-resistance exercises. Many community and senior centers offer free or low-cost classes for older adults.

Medicine Ball Tosses: Medicine balls between 2 and 4 pounds are tossed back and forth. Participants work up to 3 sets of 40 repetitions for about 20-25 minutes.  The throwing and catching motion activates two reactions in the brain related to balance and falling, say the researchers.  You can mimic this routine by simply playing catch with someone or even tossing a ball against a wall.

Pilates: These floor exercises focus on muscles in the lower and upper back, hips buttock, and inner thighs to create a solid foundation for walking and moving. An hour-long session twice a week for six weeks enhanced one study groups balancing skills and lowered their overall fear of falling. 

Heel Raises: Stand with one or both hands on a countertop for balance and go up on tiptoes for a few seconds and then lower your heels. Repeat 10 to 20 times. This gentle resistance and balance exercise strengthens muscles and nerves in the core and legs.  Dr. Schickedanz recommends doing them every time you brush your teeth.

Swimming: Join a class for water exercises for low-impact muscle training. 

[From UCLA Healthy Years. page 3. No date.] Go to www.ucla.health.org to find free videos that make complicated matters easier for you to understand.