Almost 10 million Americans report problems with balance. ¬†About 40% of people over the age of 60 years experience problems with their balance.¬† One-third of adults in this age group and over half of people over the age of 75 years fall each year. Men and women are affected about equally.¬† Loss of muscle and changes in the vestibular and nervous systems are partly responsible for increasing falls as with age.¬† Thankfully you can do things to improve your balance and reduce your risk of falls.
Your eyes, inner ear, joints, and muscles all relay information to your brain.¬† Your brain interprets all the incoming information to determine where you are in your environment.¬†¬† The brain then coordinates your response in order to maintain balance.¬† This is accomplished through pathways from your brain to your nerves and on to your muscles.¬† Existing pathways can be strengthened and new one can be created.¬† Performing exercise which is at an appropriate level to challenge and develop these pathways will improve your balance.¬† Below are 3 examples of such exercises.
Stand in front of a step or small step stool.¬† Place your hands on your hips or across your chest.¬† Place one foot gently on top of the step.¬† It is best to alternate steps with each foot.¬† The aim is to place the foot on the step as softly and quietly as possible without looking at your feet.¬† Begin by performing 10 slow repetitions with each foot.¬† Progress the exercise by using a higher step.
Make 4 squares on the floor with objects such as clothing, rope, or yard sticks.¬† Step forward then to the side, then backwards, and then back to the starting square. ¬†After a brief pause, reverse the direction.¬† Alternate directions with each reach repetition.¬† It is best to perform the exercise without looking at your feet.¬† Your stability is compromised then they head is held down.¬† Perform 5 repetitions in each direction.
Stand with the arms across your chest.¬† Step with a narrow base of support as if walking on a tightrope.¬† The heel of one foot touches the toes of the other foot.¬† Take 5 to 10 steps then pause in the narrow stance position for 5 seconds.¬† For a greater challenge perform the exercise both forward and backwards.¬† It is best to perform this exercise in a narrow hallway or near a counter in case you begin to lose your balance.
Closing Thoughts on Balance Exercises
Balance exercises must be performed frequently in order to influence your nervous system.¬† With consistent practice over time, balance and reaction time will improve slowly. ¬†¬†Don‚Äôt expect a rapid change in a few days.¬† In order to continue to make improvements, the challenge of each exercise is progressed over time.¬† Balance exercises work best when performed in conjunction with strength training.¬† See your physical therapist to determine which exercises are best for you.