Tips to keep you stable - for life!
Fall related injuries affect a third of people over 65 each year, often leading to hospital admission and in many cases seriously impacting quality of life thereafter, including dropping out of social circles and even loss of independence. There's a great danger, however, we only associate the problem with the elderly yet taking a long term view earlier in life, via a number of simple preventive exercise measures, can significantly reduce your risk of becoming another statistic.
Surprisingly, balance is required in many everyday situations, although we often take it for granted. Standing up from a chair, picking up a bag and taking your first step as you start to walk are not possible without stabilising yourself first. Importantly, although we often think of balance in terms of standing on one leg, it can imply either a static or dynamic equilibrium. It can also be automatic, as in correcting yourself when you stumble on uneven ground but also conscious, as in bracing yourself against a stiff wind.
Balance is dependent upon three processes within the body, namely visual, vestibular (inner ear) and somatosensory (touch). The combined effort of these three systems is referred to as proprioception, the ability to detect your position in space and to correct it, as necessary.
So what challenges our balance? There are many potential contributors that could act in isolation or combination, eg slow reflexes, poor vision, previous history of falls, certain medical conditions, environmental hazards such as floor surfaces and prescription drugs that may carry side-effects such as dizziness.
Clearly, with so many possible disruptors, improving balance is going to take a mix of exercise techniques in order to be successful. I recommend a mix of exercises that focus on posture, co-ordination, reaction speed, strength and flexibility with desired outcomes being increased mobility in the lower back and lower limbs, enhanced core strength and improved ability to smoothly change speed and direction.
You'll find that you're good at certain exercises and poor at others due to your previous activity experience, old injuries and your confidence levels so begin by performing exercises at your own pace and within a comfortable range of movement. You can then increase both of these when you are ready. So, here's my menu of exercise options to help to improve your balance:
-Stand on one leg, bend your supporting knee and hinge at the hip to pick up a small object from the floor. You may need to start by holding onto a chair with the free hand for support.
-Learn to juggle as this improves visual skills which are vital to feed information to your central nervous system, enabling you to anticipate obstacles and uneven terrain.
-Sit on a fitness ball when doing upper body strength exercises such as shoulder press and bicep curls.
-Put one foot on a core board or bosu when doing squats or lunges.
-Swap chest press for press ups with one hand on a medicine ball.
-Use free weights rather than fixed machines to place a greater neuromuscular demand on your body, leading to better awareness in space.
-Include lots of rotation exercises, eg Russian twist.
-Stop running in straight lines, weave between the trees and lamp-posts.
-Add vibration training to a brisk walk or stationary cycle by shaking a flexi-bar or body blade at the same time.
-Join yoga and tai chi classes.
-Run on a core board or bosu board.
-If you're a jogger, run your usual route but in reverse, as your body and mind will have to respond differently to the surface changes and renewed order of obstacles.
To conclude, I wish to stress danger of thinking of balance as a later-life issue, we should instead focus on the high value of it as a preventive tool to keep you healthy, whatever your current age and activity level. Remember, balance training will not only help you to ski and skate better, but will also improve basic functions such as walking down the street and standing up, ensuring the amazing machine that is your body keeps working