As we age, balance is one of the first to go. With that loss comes a lot of anxiety and worrying about falling — and actually falling and “breaking a hip.”
“That fear of falling sometimes leads to the actual falls, because people don’t feel as confident or they’re constantly worried about where they’ll step,” says Jeannine Magowan, manager of Health Promotion at Area Agency on Aging 1-B in Southfield. “This fear tends to be the leading cause of falls.”
The Area Agencies on Aging in Detroit and Southfield participate in a national program, Matter of Balance, to give older adults tools to keep help improve balance.
“Knowing that falls are preventable and being able to do the things you can to make your environment as safe as can be helps encourage older adults to stay physically active and not let that fear take over,” Magowan says.
Some of those are simple: wearing appropriate footwear and creating clear walkways. The biggest one, experts agree, is maintaining an exercise program.
“Strength has been proven to decline in the aging process, which negatively affects one’s balance,” says Leython Williams, a physical therapist and facility manager at Athletico in Royal Oak. “It is critical that we continue to engage in a regular exercise regimen that involves aerobic activity and strength training to mitigate losses in muscle mass and decrease our fall risk.”
The threat of staying active looms over all of us, but there are techniques and practices that can help.
1. Breathing exercises
The combination of shifting your weight, bending your knees, and breathing deeply and purposefully can have a very relaxing effect.
Michael Ashmore, chief instructor at Wu’s Tai Chi Chuan Academy in Ferndale, says that when you bend your knees and your muscles take over to hold you up, this generates a lot of metabolic heat that builds up in your body.
“It’s like being in a warm blanket while standing up,” he says.
Seniors are encouraged to stand upright when they exercise.
“It’s a lot easier to balance a straight stick than a curved stick,” Ashmore says. “We spend a lot of time not twisting our spine through these outrageously arbitrary postures. The Preparative Posture is the first thing we teach. Students stand straight, their feet parallel beneath their hip joints, gazing forward levelly, lifting their crown, dropping their chin, placing their tongue on the roof of the mouth, and relaxing their shoulders, chest, and breathing.”
3. Shifting weight
Shifting your weight can help you find your center of gravity, control your weight and allow you to transition into different stances and exercises with ease.
“As people shift their weight forward after stepping, we ask them to stretch into a forward lean, and eventually establish the one legged 100% – 0% weight, what we call yin and yang separation, between their two feet,” Ashmore says. “This lower body workout does a gentle yet thorough job for conditioning purposes.”
4. Slow stepping
Slow stepping allows you to begin learning how to move from your lower body. This fundamental is present in many Tai Chi stances, for example. Being aware of your foundation and footing is key to maintaining balance.
Both Williams and Magowan agree that canes and walkers can also help with balance, but only when they’re used.
“If your physician has prescribed an assistive device, do not be too proud to use it,” Williams says. “Using an assistive device will assist you in your independence for a long time. It is better to use it now than to wish you did in retrospect, especially on uneven terrain or unstable surfaces. Use your assistive device, watch your step and use railings. Take advantage of the assistance available to you.”
While standing and continuous movement is essential to balance, so is sitting. The act of bending down to sit is just as important as bending up to stand.
“Sitting involves taking away the support of the skeleton when standing up, leaving the muscles to do the work, and work generates metabolic heat in the short term as well as improved stamina over time,” Ashmore says.
Basic exercise can even be done while sitting, Magowan says. She recommends stretching arms out, bending at the elbows for 10 repetitions during a commercial break in a television program.
“Five minutes of physical activity while watching a show, even in small increments, is better for you than nothing at all,” she said. “That will all help with physical endurance.”
6. Physical therapy
When you’re unsure of how to improve your balance, or simply need physical guidance, a physical therapist will help target the parts of your body causing you trouble and will create a regime for long-term health.
“Falling is very common, but it doesn’t have to be anyone’s norm,” Williams says. “Patients need to know that their physical therapist will evaluate and treat any trauma sustained from their fall while also assessing their fall risk to maximize safe ambulation.”
In some cases, vision impairment can cause disturbances in balance. An easy fix to this is to avoid walking in the dark and to keep rooms well lit.
“Like strength, vision is a component of balance and is crucial in fall prevention,” Williams says. “Be sure that your eye prescription is updated. Single-focus lenses are recommended when walking outside to maintain proper depth perception.”
8. Social support
In exercise, especially in the pandemic, support can also be very practical, such as helping older adults set up their online classes.
“Their family members can encourage them to attend the class, and may even attend the classes themselves, to benefit and reinforce at the same time,” Ashmore says. “Ultimately though, it is up to every individual to want to do it for themselves.”