Just to ask, when was the last time you practiced balancing on one leg for a minute or two?
Although you may not have realized it, your balance begins to deteriorate starting around the age of 40. Poor balance is associated with an increase in falls and injuries such as wrist and hip fractures, even in middle-aged individuals. In studies on old rodents, researchers found that these animals experience deterioration in neural connections in the part of the brain that helps fine tune movements (the cerebellum) when sedentary. If placed in a new environment and encouraged to walk on narrow beams, however, they regain their balance. Similarly to rats, humans of any age can regain much of their ability to balance by practicing doing it.
How can you tell how good your balance is? Poor balance is readily apparent if you stand on one leg and shut your eyes. (Don’t try doing this without holding onto something.) You may be surprised how much worse your balance is with your eyes closed. To balance effectively, you need adequate strength in your ankle and hip muscles, good feedback from the nerves in your feet (to help your brain with its position sense), and a functioning cerebellum. Most of us rely more heavily on our eyes for balance to compensate for negative changes in our ability to balance over time. Regardless of your age, if you can’t stand steadily on one leg for at least 15 seconds — with or without your eyes closed — then you definitely need to start practicing as soon as possible to improve your balance.
Standard Balance Exercises. The ancient Chinese exercise form known as tai chi is excellent for improving balance, which is not surprising given that it’s the foundation of all martial arts forms. Imagine the Taekwondo expert who, without adequate balancing skills, goes to kick his opponent and lands instead on his backside on the floor — not a pretty sight! Getting involved in tai chi or any form of martial arts training will allow you to practice your balance while gaining lower body strength. Lower-body resistance training also doubles as balance exercise. When you do your regular strength exercises, your balance should improve at the same time.
Try This One-Legged Balance Exercise Daily. The easiest balance exercise is to hold onto a table with both hands while standing on one leg. Once you feel stable in this position, you should slowly release one hand. This exercise needs only to be done two to three times a day on alternating feet. Within a couple of weeks or months, your balance will rapidly improve.
This easy exercise can improve your balance further if you modify it slightly. Incorporate these more advanced balance techniques as you progress: (1) hold on with only one fingertip while standing on one leg; (2) don’t hold on at all; and (3) if you are very steady on your feet, close your eyes (still without holding on). It’s a good idea to have someone stand close by in case you ever feel unsteady, though, particularly when your eyes are closed. Switch legs and repeat often.
Anytime Balance Exercises. The following exercises also improve your balance, regardless of how young and steady you still are. You can do them almost anytime and as often as you like, as long as you have something sturdy nearby to hold onto if needed.
- Grab a towel with your toes. Place a towel on the floor and practice grabbing it with the toes of both of your feet, alternately, while both sitting and standing.
- Stand on a cushion. Try using cushions or pillows of varying firmness, and stand on them with your legs alternately together and apart.
- Stand with a changed position. Try standing under different conditions — with your eyes open or closed, your head tilted to one side or straight, your mouth talking or silent, and your hands at your sides or out from your body.
- Walk heel-to-toe. Position your heel just in front of the toes of the opposite foot each time you take a step. Your heel and toes should touch or come close. You may want to start first going along hand rails or with a wall next to you.
- Walk backwards. Try walking backwards along a wall or a kitchen counter without looking back, using the wall or counter to steady yourself infrequently.
Although falling down in inevitable at any age (as discussed in an earlier column), you can reduce your risk of falls by improving your balance, lower body strength, flexibility (especially in your ankles), fitness, and agility. Work on balance exercises daily for the best results.
Sign up for the Diabetes "Fit Brain, Fit Body!" fitness/lifestyle programs or for 5 free Healthy Living Reports at www.lifelongexercise.com, and access more articles and information at www.shericolberg.com. If you need tips for getting safely started on an exercise program, check out The 7 Step Diabetes Fitness Plan. For people with any type of diabetes who are already more active, consult the Diabetic Athlete’s Handbook.
For more information on successful again, pick up a copy of The Science of Staying Young by John Morley, MD, a geriatric specialist, that I coauthored with him.