With winter weather here, snow and ice will provide new challenges to our daily lives.  Now is the time to add balance training to your workout.  We often over-look our ability to balance, until we lose it! Balance is critical at any age, but becomes essential for older adults.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report one in three adults age 65 and older fall each year.

Falls and Injury

Sustaining a fall can be devastating.  According to the CDC, one third of all falls result in injury, and the risk of falls goes up for every decade of life after 65.  Falls are the leading cause of head injury, result in 95% of hip fractures, and over the age of 75 increase the likelihood 4-5 times of requiring a long term care center.  Even if one avoids injury, the psychological effects of a fall can affect quality of life.  “Fear of falling,” is one of the negative consequences with a profound affect.  Fortunately, there is a lot we can do to reduce the risk of falls and improve balance at any age.

Balance Systems

Our body is made up of three systems that help us balance: Our vision, the vestibular system in our inner ear, and proprioceptors.   As we age we tend to rely more heavily on vision which naturally worsens.  The vestibular system is challenged when we alter our head position, it’s why we choose to focus on a single point and don’t turn our heads when balancing.  Proprioceptors are located in our joints and muscles and they give our brain information about where our body is in space.  Proprioceptors are why you can close your eyes and raise your arm to ninety degrees and know it’s exactly there just by the feel.  All three of these systems contribute to your balance as a whole and all three can be improved with exercise.

Test Your Balance

Test your balance right now by standing on one leg. Can you hold it steady for 45 seconds?   We expect this from most people, if you are unable now, practice!  If you easily maintained your balance, now try closing your eyes and standing on one leg.  Our goal for the active population is eyes closed, single leg balance for 30 seconds.  You might notice that it gets significantly harder to stand on one leg with your eyes closed, that’s because we took away the visual system and you are now relying on only two of your three balance systems.  Vision screening and wearing appropriate corrective devices will help reduce your risk of falls, as well as practicing balance exercises. 

Current research supports leg strengthening, balance exercises, Thai Chi, and increasing flexibility to improve balance.  Check with your physician about the medications you are taking, they can often affect balance or interact with other medications to make balance more difficult.  Home modification may also be necessary to reduce falls, specifically clearing any path of throw rugs, clutter or small animals that are easy to trip over.  Be pro-active when it comes to reducing falls and improving your balance!