As you make your way through the world each day, balance plays a quiet but critical role. It’s a delicate dance of multiple body systems working in concert: Strength and flexibility support you while your senses of touch, sight and hearing, as well as the vestibular system in your inner ear, keep you informed about where you are in three-dimensional space.
You might not even realize how much you take your sense of balance for granted — until you fall. A fall can injure you in any number of ways, some of them quite serious, but even if it doesn’t, it really does a number on your confidence — your confidence in simply getting around. The likelihood of this sort of thing happening increases with age, but you don’t have to be a senior to be vulnerable.
Consider this: When 775 women and men tried to stand on one leg for 60 seconds without extra support for a 2017 Duke University study, the outcomes revealed a big age divide. Participants in their 30s stayed upright for 57 seconds and 40-somethings lasted 52 seconds. Those in their 50s lost their balance after 44 seconds, 60-year-olds wobbled after 40 seconds and 70-year-olds after just 27 seconds. Alternately, in a 2019 Canadian study of 344 older adults, those who followed an at-home strength and balance regimen for one year went on to have 74 percent fewer falls the following year compared to those who didn’t (per AARP.org).
In other words, this age-related decline doesn’t have to be inevitable. Get regular checkups to ensure your Vitamin D levels are good (which is believed to improve balance and posture), and your eyesight and hearing are well supported, and introduce some low-impact exercise and movement into your routine. One discipline that is well-known to benefit balance is tai chi, a slow meditative series of controlled movements. Studies have shown that tai chi reduces falls in seniors by up to 45 percent, according to Peter Wayne, Ph.D., author of (The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi.) Tai chi is typically practiced in a group setting, giving participants the bonus of social interaction.
Two more activities that benefit balance and coordination are water-based: swimming and water aerobics. Considered low-impact exercises, swimming and water aerobics are great alternatives for people who suffer from chronic joint pain and would like to avoid injury (as well as sweat). But the benefits don’t stop there: Swimming and water aerobics strengthen cardiovascular health, are gentle on joints while improving flexibility, mobility and core strength, and are miraculous at reducing stress and helping sleep.
Yoga and Pilates are two more full-body, low-impact activities that can work separately (or together) to improve balance and core strength, and like the other activities mentioned here, they can be started at any age. If you take them together, so much the better: Strengthening your core in Pilates classes will give you better balance in yoga. And the increased flexibility that yoga brings will enable you to make bigger, stronger moves in Pilates.
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Whatever you decide, if you do fall, don’t let it intimidate you into inactivity. That will only make you more prone to future falls. Get advice from your doctor, of course, but ease into one or more of these low-impact, high-benefit group activities so you can keep your sense of balance humming and your body working for you well into your senior years. The bonus? You might even make some new friends.
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Tampa Bay Times 2023 Medicare Guide
Everything Florida seniors need to know to get ready for Medicare enrollment is available at tampabay.com/medicare.
• HOW MEDICARE WORKS: Here’s what seniors need to know about open enrollment, how Medicare works and how to find the best coverage for 2022.
• COMPARE MEDICARE PLANS: The Times has assembled a chart to help Tampa Bay residents shop for the best 2022 coverage in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties.
• COMPARE PRESCRIPTION PLANS: This chart shows the plans available in Florida under Medicare’s Part D program for prescription drugs.
• FINDING HELP: Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders, or SHINE, is a state program that connects with seniors online or by phone to help them navigate the Medicare benefits. Call 1-800-963-5337 or visit floridashine.org.
• COVID SHOTS SAVED SENIORS’ LIVES: Primary immunizations were associated with up to 680,000 fewer COVID hospitalizations and between 330,000 to 370,000 fewer related deaths among Medicare beneficiaries in 2021
• MILLIONS WILL SAVE IN MEDICARE FEES: The rare 3% decrease in monthly premiums will be coupled with a historically high cost-of-living increase in Social Security benefits.
• BILLIONS IN BENEFITS UNUSED: Millions of older adults are having trouble making ends meet, especially during these inflationary times. Yet many don’t realize help is available, and some notable programs that offer financial assistance are unused.
• LIFE IS A BALANCING ACT, UNTIL YOU FALL: Maintaining good health is key to a longer life.
• 9 TIPS TO STAY HEALTHY AS YOU AGE: Ideas for staying healthy longer.