Have you noticed that your balance is not what it used to be? According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, more than 33 percent of adults age 65 and older will fall at least once per year.
Falls are often caused by several factors whose risks can be lessened: dizziness due to the interaction of medications, dehydration, inadequate or unbalanced diet, a drop in blood pressure, visual or auditory issues, and hazards in our everyday environment — poor lighting, furniture placement, uneven pavement or high curbs, etc.
Although falls do occur more frequently after age 65, age is generally less the culprit than our lack of strength and flexibility. The loss of postural control and balance happens slowly, as the muscles that are needed to sustain proper posture become weakened from disuse.
Muscle imbalances can also impair balance by causing tight muscles, which decrease flexibility and range of motion. Our deep abdominals and deep back muscles also have much to do with maintaining balance, as the body core, with its 29 muscles, is the center for all movement. A strong core gives you controlled movement and a more stable center of gravity.
Thus, balance also depends on the familiar "use it or lose it" principal. Generally as we age, activities involving a lot of movement are replaced with less movement. It is estimated that 75 percent of people ages 65 to 85 lose up to 2 percent of muscle strength every year because of insufficient activity.
In what becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, many older adults become afraid of losing their balance and falling, and begin to lose confidence in what they can do. So they limit their activities — resulting in the loss of muscle and loss of balance.
Even without an actual fall, the effect is to limit the quality of life for these people.
Yet studies have shown that people who perform lower-body and core-strengthening exercises, with balance training and flexibility exercises, can increase their balance, regardless of age, by as much as 50 percent.
Tai chi, the gentle series of exercises in which each movement flows into the next without pause, is also believed to improve balance and thus help prevent falls. However, while exercise of moderate intensity can reduce fall-related fractures for healthy adults, seniors with existing severe limitations may need special assistance.
Training to improve balance requires you to put yourself into a controlled, but slightly unstable, environment, such as standing on one leg — always beginning with support. Some simple exercises to improve balance by building strength include:
Strengthening legs: Placing arms across chest, get up and down in a chair 10 times.
Strengthening arms: Holding onto the chair, push yourself up and down without using your legs.
For the following, begin by grasping, with one hand, a sturdy table or chair for support. Progress to being able to do the exercise while touching the support with one fingertip, then, move to using no support.
Hold each of the following positions for eight to 12 seconds, and do eight to 12 repetitions for each leg.
Tips: Contracting abdominals helps promote balance. Do not lock the knee of the standing leg. Warm up for a few minutes before beginning the exercises, perhaps by marching in place or walking.
Calf exercise, strengthens calf muscles, back of lower legs: Standing tall, feet shoulder-width apart, balance on the balls of both feet, then on one foot. Eventually while balancing on one foot, perform a biceps curl with light weights.
Lateral leg lifts, strengthen thighs and hip muscles: Keeping back straight, lift one leg slowly out to the side, toes pointed forward. Lift leg until foot is about 6 to 12 inches off the floor. Slowly return the leg, never touching the floor.
Hip extension, strengthens buttocks and lower back: Bending forward at hips, at about a 45-degree angle, slowly lift and lower leg backward, without bending the knee.
Leg bend and extend, strengthens quadriceps (front of thighs): Standing on one leg, lift knee to hip level, keeping the ankle under the knee. Slowly extend the leg forward from the knee, hold, then return knee to bent position.
Leg curls, strengthen hamstrings (back of thighs): Standing on one leg, bend the knee, bringing the foot up behind you, knee pointing to the floor. Hold this for a few seconds, then release.
This month's exercises are demonstrated by Lynn Johnson, 61, left, and Trish Thomas, 64.
Squat and calf raise (not pictured), strengthens lower body
Standing with feet shoulder-width apart, hold weights at sides. Squat, bending knees, keeping weight over heels and knees behind toes.
Tighten gluteals and push through heels to stand up; lift heels, standing on balls of feet. Straighten arms as you raise arms over shoulders, palms facing forward (overhead press). Tip: Contract abdominals and stand tall; do not lean forward.
Photos by CHRIS ZUPPA | Times
Lunge and roll the ball (above), strengthens and stretches legs
(Lynn) Place legs in a straddle position. Bending knees, place right hand on top of ball.
(Trish) Bending into left knee, lunge to the left, simultaneously moving ball to the left. Keeping hand on ball, and remaining in the straddle position, straighten left leg while rolling ball to center position. Repeat eight to 10 times on left, then change sides and repeat on other side. Tip: Keep knees relaxed throughout; do not allow knees to go beyond the toes.