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When I set out to write this, I quickly realized that keeping your balance is a lot easier than defining it. So I turned to the dictionary. Webster’s defines balance as:
bal·ance noun \ˈba-lən(t)s\
: the state of having your weight spread equally so that you do not fall
: the ability to move or to remain in a position without losing control or falling
It’s that second definition which is the functional, every day skill we’re most concerned with as we age. Just like starting a campfire, or unfolding a lawnchair, or even backing up your RV, there are lot of systems in the body that have to come together to pull this skill off. To have good balance, the following things have to coordinate and work together:
- The vision
- The inner ear
- The muscles and joints
- The Propioceptive system—specialized receptors that let you know where you are in space
Even if just one of these systems gets out of whack, it can produce balance problems. And we haven’t even mentioned the brain yet! So even when those systems are all working perfectly, the information still has to be accurately processed and interpreted by your brain. Finally, those instructions have to travel back out along your nerves so you can do something about it. Only then will you “keep your balance.”
Why It Declines as we Age
This is a complicated topic, but an important one considering the alarming rates of falls that occur in older adults. It’s easiest to address it by looking at the different systems involved in balance that we mentioned above.
- Vision: Our sight diminishes with age in many ways: ability to focus, see things clearly, depth perception, night vision, and the ability of your husband to pick the splinters that he got in the wood shop out of his own fingers instead of coming inside and interrupting what you’re doing for the fifteenth time. (Did I say that out loud?) The decline of these visual cues affects our balance, since the brain doesn’t have the same quality of visual information to work with as it once did.
- Inner Ear: Fluid and tiny hairs in the inner ear stimulate the auditory nerve, which gives us the ability to balance. However, cells in this system die off as we age. This affects how efficiently we detect our position in space and therefore how well we can correct our position. Basically, it becomes harder for the brain to interpret our position, and if we’re leaning too far left, for example, it might not detect our position quick enough to prevent us falling to the left.
- Muscles and joints: Not only do we lose muscle mass as we age, we also lose power. By power, I mean those rapid, strong movements which help us react quickly. If you begin to stumble over something, it’s your power that brings your leg around in a split second as you catch yourself and regain your balance. Your joints play an important role, too. Our joints get stiffer with age. Without a healthy range of motion in your joints, your body won’t be able to move and respond to tasks that require balance as easily.
- Propriocepton: As we age, our ability to orient ourselves and be aware of our surroundings dulls. I’ve read a lot of studies that show our sensory input declines with age, and I see it firsthand in my older clients. At this point, science doesn’t seem to have a generally accepted reason for this – we just know it happens. Without having our proprioceptors giving us quick and precise information about our whereabouts, our balance becomes greatly compromised. (I always wonder if those people who stand WAY too close to you in grocery stores and the like have problems with their proprioception…)
How To Improve It
Now for the good news: The more active you are, the more you can slow the process. No matter how old or at what stage in life, your balance can always be improved.
Earlier, we defined balance as an ability, or a skill. Just like any motor skill, you have to train your balance in the same way you train your muscles for strength or your heart for cardiovascular health. Skills and training will stick with us as we age, even if some of the supporting systems start to falter.
Think about it this way: Now in his 60s, Nolan Ryan may not throw a fastball with all the zip he once had – but he could still strike you out because his highly developed skills have stayed with him. As you develop your balance skills, they’ll stick with you too. Here are some things you can do right now to become a balance hall-of-famer.
- Test it: See where you’re starting out by trying a simple balance test. See how long you’re able to stand on one leg. The average 60 year old can do this for 27 seconds, while younger folks can go longer, and older folks tend to go less. If you can’t balance for 10 seconds, then you are at an extremely high risk of falling.
- Practice balance tasks regularly: This could be as simple as standing on one foot while waiting in lines or watching TV, or as challenging as practicing Get-Ups (lie on your back, and stand up with little to no help from your hands). The more you practice balancing, the better you’ll get.
- Work on your power: To combat the loss of power as we age, it’s important we do power-specific exercises, the type that calls for quick movements, like stamping your feet quickly, or rising to your tippy toes as fast as you can. Keeping up our power skills will help us react quickly if we trip, or find ourselves off balance.
And since there’s no time like the present, here are some balance exercises you can try right now!