Balancing Act

Balance is the ability of your body to maintain equilibrium when you stand, walk or perform any daily activity like putting on pants, walking on uneven ground or reaching for something on a shelf. As children we probably loved to twirl and spin, as teenagers we enjoy carnival rides to experience dizziness and loss of balance but as adults we lose the joy of that thrill and it can become disorienting and nauseating and sometimes a dangerous experience. Without a sense of balance, just about every physical activity can become an insurmountable obstacle.

One in three people over the age of 65 will experience a fall and those falls, and their sometimes disastrous medical consequences, are becoming more common as the population ages. Our sense of balance will begin to decrease from the age of 20 and then it is downhill — literally and figuratively — from there unless steps are taken to maintain or restore this important ability.

A normal consequence of aging is a steady decline in the three main sensory contributors to good balance; vision – our ability to see our immediate environment; feet – the nerve endings (proprioceptors) on the bottoms of the feet that communicate our bodies position information to the brain; ears – the tiny hairs in the semicircular canals of the inner ear that relay gravity and movement information to the brain. Add to that the usual loss of muscle strength and flexibility that generally accompanies aging and you have a fall waiting to happen.

As well as aging, some diseases can cause loss of balance. Vertigo can be caused by inner ear infections, low blood pressure, brain injuries, certain medications and some chronic diseases.
But it is not all gloom and doom; while certain declines with age are unavoidable, physio-therapists, and fitness industry professionals have proved that the sense of balance can be preserved and even restored through exercises that require no special equipment or training.

You can simply assess your current balance ability. Stand near a bench or wall to steady yourself if needed, stand straight, wearing flat heeled shoes; fold your arms across your chest, raise one leg, bending the knee about 45 degrees, close your eyes and slowly count how long you can stand there. Repeat this test with the other leg. Up to 50 years old you will want to achieve 25-30 seconds on each leg. As our age increases generally our balance decreases. By the time we are over 70 years old we average 4 seconds but whatever your age, you can improve your balance.

Some exercises to improve balance are as simple as standing on one foot when you brush your teeth or talk on the telephone or as walking across a room heel-to-toe with one foot directly in front of the other. Exercises that improve ankle, knee and hip strength, such as sitting to standing with your arms folded across your chest, give further stability. Continuous movements like tai chi, dancing and Nia have been scientifically proven to improve balance and, as a bonus, science has also shown is that balance improves brain functioning and protects you from forgetfulness and dementia.