Working on balance isn’t just for “old folks”
There is a lot of emphasis these days on cardiovascular fitness and strength training. However, exercising to maintain orimprove balance is just as important. Just as strength and endurance decline with age, balance can decline as well.
Balance involves not only the strength of our leg and trunk muscles and flexibility, but also three sensory systems.
· Vision helps us with balance by telling us where we are in relation to other objects.
· Proprioception (position sense) in our feet and legs tells us if we’re leaning one way or the other, or on what kind of surface we are walking, such as thick carpet for a firm floor, or if our weight is more on one aspect of our foot than the other.
· Inner ear, known as the vestibular system, gives us information about how we are moving, whether we are turning, tilting or changing speed.
Our brain receives input from each system, integrates the information, and forms a response. For example, when we walk in the dark, we aren’t using our vision as much to help us balance. Our brains have to know to use the vestibular (inner ear) system and proprioception (position sense) in our feet and legs to stay balanced. If we walk on uneven surfaces, we have to rely more on our vision and vestibular (inner ear) system. A more complex task is walking on an uneven surface at night where input from both vision and proprioception (position sense) is impaired. Our brain then has to rely mostly on information from the vestibular (inner ear) system.
If we are not challenging our balance as we age, it can decline, just like muscle strength and flexibility. As we age, if we begin to feel off balance or fall, we lose confidence in doing the things we enjoy and we may limit or stop doing certain activities. This leads to further imbalance and debilitation, and ultimately a decreased quality of life.
Similar to strengthening our muscles, there are exercises we can do to “strengthen” ourbalance. Many fitness and social centers are now incorporating balance exercises into their classes and/or offering classes specifically to help with balance. Tai Chi is a popular exercise that has been scientifically proven to improve balance. Activities to improve balance include standing with your eyes closed, standing with one foot in front of the other or standing on one leg.
Physical Therapists who are trained in Vestibular Rehabilitation are excellent resources for improving balance. If you or a loved one is beginning to feel off balance with their normal activities, or experiencing falls, please seek help from a physical therapist who has training and experience in this area. An exercise program can be developed specifically for your needs based on the difficulties you are having with balance. Often, only a few visits are needed to make significant progress, improving your balance to prevent falling.