Scott McCredie learnt that our sense of balance begins to degrade in our 20s, unless we take steps to preserve or restore this delicate and critically important ability to maintain equilibrium. He believes that without a sense of balance, just about everything else in life can become an insurmountable obstacle.
As we age there a resulting steady decline in the three main sensory contributors to balance- vision, proprioceptors on the bottoms of the feet and the tiny hairs in the semicircular canals of the inner ear that relay gravity and motion information to the brain. Additionally the loss of muscle strength and flexibility that typically accompany aging increases the likelihood of a fall.
However, many health experts have proven that much of the sense of balance can be preserved and even restored through exercises that require no special equipment or training. These exercises are as simple as standing on one foot while brushing your teeth or walking heel-to-toe with one foot directly in front of the other.
Testing for Equilibrium
With a counter or sturdy furniture near enough to steady you if needed, perform this test:
1. Stand straight, wearing flat, closed shoes, with your arms folded across your chest. Raise one leg, bending the knee about 45 degrees, start a stopwatch and close your eyes.
2. Remain on one leg, stopping the watch immediately if you uncross your arms, tilt sideways more than 45 degrees, move the leg you are standing on or touch the raised leg to the floor.
3. Repeat this test with the other leg
Now, compare your performance to the norms for various ages:
- 20 to 49 years old: 24 to 28 seconds/ 50 to 59 years: 21 seconds/ 60 to 69 years: 10 seconds/ 70 to 79 years: 4 seconds/80 and older: most cannot do it at all.
Hopefully you are striving for the norm of those younger than 50. To increase stability and strengthen the legs, stand with feet shoulder-width apart and arms straight out in front. Lift one foot behind, bending the knee at 45 degrees. Hold that position for five seconds or longer, if possible.
Repeat this exercise five times. Then switch legs. As you improve, try one-leg stands with your eyes closed.
You can also incorporate one-leg stands into daily routines — while on the telephone, for example, brushing your teeth, waiting in line or for a bus, or cooking and washing dishes.
Exercises to Build Motor Skill
"Remember, balance is a motor skill," Moffat, professor of physical therapy at New York University, said in an interview. "To enhance it, you have to train your balance in the same way you would have to train your muscles for strength and your heart for aerobic capacity."
Moffat pointed out that balance is twofold: static while standing still and dynamic when moving, as in walking and climbing stairs. Two main routes improve balance — exercises that increase the strength of the ankle, knee and hip muscles and exercises that improve the function of the vestibular system.
Sit-to-stand exercises once or twice a day increase ankle, leg and hip strength and help the body adjust to changes in position without becoming dizzy after being sedentary for a long time. Sit straight in a firm chair (do not lean against the back) with arms crossed. Stand up straight and sit down again as quickly as you can without using your arms. Repeat the exercise three times and build to 10 repetitions.
Heel-to-toe tandem walking is another anytime exercise, it is best done on a firm, un-carpeted floor. With stomach muscles tight and chin tucked in, place one foot in front of the other such that the heel of the front foot nearly touches the toe of the back foot. Walk 10 or more feet and repeat the exercise once or twice a day.
Also try walking on your toes and then walking on your heels to strengthen your ankles.
Another helpful exercise is sidestepping. Facing a wall, step sideways with one leg (bring the other foot to it) 10 times in each direction. After mastering that, try a dance like maneuver that starts with sidestepping once to the right. Then cross the left leg behind, sidestep to the right again and cross the left leg in front. Repeat this 10 times. Then do it in the other direction.
In addition, the slow, continuous movements of tai chi, that popular Chinese exercise, have been shown in scientific studies to improve balance and reduce the risk of falls.
By Jane E. Brody- New York Times