Your Health Checkup: Balancing Life’s Eventualities

Certain exercises can reduce the risk of falling in older adults by fine-tuning the body’s reaction to things that might disturb its balance.

Woman practicing Yoga
stock_a / Shutterstock

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“Your Health Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive. 

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A few days ago, I lost my balance while descending a flight of stairs. My wife’s quick response to grab my shirt gave me a precious second or two to seize the handrailing, and I righted myself. I didn’t realize that each year more than a quarter of older adults fall, totaling more than 36 million falls annually. Such trauma leads to fractured legs, broken hips, and brain injuries. It made me think how life can change on a dime and how important it is to prepare for eventualities as much as possible.

Some things are predictable — no, not falling down the stairs, but loss of balance as we age. A recent article highlighted a method called “perturbation-based balance” to reduce the risk of falling in older adults or those with neurological conditions, by fine-tuning the body’s reaction to things that might disturb its balance. The technique is also promoted to help recreational and elite athletes avoid injury and speed rehabilitation.

Balance largely depends on vision, on proprioception (the body’s ability to sense where limbs are), and on structures in the inner ear (the body’s gyroscope) that feed information to the brain about the body’s position. Challenging any one of these systems can make the other two systems work harder and thus improve the body’s response to maintaining balance.

Yoga exercises can help. I marvel at my daughter’s ability, as a yoga instructor, to stand stationary on one foot with the other leg bent and its foot resting alongside the knee of the straight leg. It reminds me of a bird standing on one leg with the other leg tucked under a wing. A modification of this is to just stand in stocking feet on one foot with the other elevated inches off the ground five to ten minutes a day to start. That technique can be made more difficult by closing your eyes or waving your arms. Dressing and undressing without holding on to furniture is a good exercise, as is walking without looking at the surface in front of you. Another approach is to perform squats, eyes open or closed, or to stand on an unsteady surface such an inflated ball, or a half ball flat on one side called a BOSU balance trainer. Pushups, planks (weight on elbows and balls of feet, body in a straight line), step ups and step downs, and various Pilates exercises all help strengthen muscles critical for balance.

There are many exercises to improve balance available on the Internet. Whichever ones you perform, take care to do it at a fitness facility or with someone nearby in order to prevent falling and injuring yourself. The purpose is to prevent falls, not foster them!

Featured image: stock_a / Shutterstock


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