Maintaining good balance is a complex process that involves your brain, eyes, inner ears and muscles, as well as the ability to sense where your body is in space. Fortunately, it's never too late (or too early) to boost your steadying skills by doing a few simple moves.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one in 11 adults aged 65 or older reports trouble with balance, and roughly 300,000 older adults are admitted to the hospital for fall-related injuries each year. But staying active with regular exercise, such as walking, jogging or strength training, can help combat age-related declines in balance before they start.
"Balance training should be part of your exercise program no matter how old you are or whether or not you feel unstable on your feet," says Barbara Bushman, Ph.D., FACSM, an exercise physiologist at Missouri State University. "Any weight-bearing activity where you use your muscles in a coordinated way can help promote good balance," she says.
Tai chi, a slow and gentle form of exercise based on movements and postures from Chinese martial arts, is especially effective at improving your sense of steadiness, says Bushman. It incorporates multiple weight shifts and standing on one leg for short periods of time.
Several studies have suggested that doing tai chi may reduce fall riskas well as the fear of fallingin older adults. Tai chi can be performed alone or in groups; it's best to learn from a licensed instructor. Contact your local fitness or senior center for information on classes.
For more targeted balance exercises you can do at home, try these two moves:
- Weight Shifts Stand on a firm, nonslip surface with your feet shoulder width apart. Start by stepping side to side, transferring your weight from one foot to the other. Use the edge of a table or countertop to steady yourself as needed. To make this exercise more challenging, try narrowing your stance and shifting your weight forwards and backwardsor stand on a foam exercise mat or balance cushion instead of a firm surface.
- Single Leg Stance Hold on to a table or chair for support. Stand on one leg for 10 to 15 seconds. Switch legs and repeat 10 times with each leg. To increase the challenge, try holding on to the table or chair with only one finger or don't hold on at all. Work up to 20 seconds on each leg. (Still too easy? Close your eyes.) "Ideally, you'll want to do balance exercises two to three times per week for 20 to 30 minutes," says Bushman.
Check Your Prescriptions
Blurred vision or wearing the wrong eyeglasses can cause unsteadiness, so getting your eyeglasses prescription checked on a regular basis is really important, says Bushman. Certain medications can lead to problems with balance, too. Sleep aids, antidepressants and allergy and blood pressure medications can cause dizziness or drowsiness.
If you're concerned that your meds may be affecting your balance, talk with your doctor. Sometimes adjusting the dosage or the time of day you take the medications can help.
From our sister publication REMEDY's Healthy Living Spring 2015