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Standing on Your Own Two Feet – Don’t Take Balance for Granted

Standing on Your Own Two Feet – Don’t Take Balance for Granted
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By Kathleen M. Heins

Linda Bodenrader, 57, of Lowell, Massachusetts, noticed she was having balance problems beginning in her late 40s. A busy mother of three, and owner of an interior decorating company, she pushed aside concerns for the dizzy spells, lower back pain, and headaches which were challenging her equilibrium. Not addressing health issues that affect balance, however, is a recipe for disaster. It’s a common occurrence. We may worry about extra pounds, and the appearance of frown lines, but how many of us actually wonder how we’re doing when it comes to the ability to remain steady on our own two feet? While mentally we may still feel as if we’re in our 30s, it’s inevitable that our balance is going to become compromised as we age if we don’t work to maintain it.

When it comes to balance, it’s not just activities such as heading down the stairs with an arm full of laundry that put us at risk of falling. According the US Department of Health and Human Services, older adults fall while doing simple activities such as walking or even just turning around. Over 1.6 million adults visit an emergency room for fall-related problems every year. The emergence of balance-related challenges can be subtle. One moment you’re feeling as fit as ever but then little changes that affect balance start to creep into daily living such as not being able to stand up from a sitting position as easily as you used to or finding you need your reading glasses more often.

It’s an issue that needs greater attention. “We need to continue to get the word out regarding the importance of balance,” says Mary Ann Wilmarth, DPT, a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. Wilmarth says that overall she finds people more proactive about staying fit as they age but greater numbers need to get on board. For starters, says Wilmarth, pay attention to signs that trouble may be on the horizon. Such red flags, she states, include:

  • Staggering when walking
  • Difficulty getting up from sitting
  • Trouble with stairs or navigating curbs
  • Feeling like you might fall or catching yourself before you hit the ground
  • Dizziness or vertigo
  • Blurred Vision
  • Feeling lightheaded, faint, confused or disoriented

So where should you begin? Start by getting a physical. According to the National Institutes of Health, other health problems (such as diabetes and heart disease) can also challenge balance. Review your medications for those which may contribute to dizziness and see if alternatives are available. If you’re 65 or older (or younger if you have a family history of osteoporosis), get a bone density test to assess the strength of your bones. Make sure to get enough calcium and vitamin D to keep bones strong.

In addition to making sure any eyeglass prescriptions are up to date, get checked for cataracts or glaucoma which can also contribute to balance problems. Make sure to have your hearing checked out regularly as well. “Balance involves the vestibular system (the part of the inner ear that helps control balance); if this is off then you want to get help as soon as possible,” says Wilmarth. You should also report to your doctor any changes you’re noticing; particularly problems with dizziness, shortness of breath, numbness, joint pain or any other unusual symptoms.

If you are having trouble with balance, see a physical therapist who specializes in balance problems. “The physical therapist should oversee the client’s general health and can assess for other issues that may be exacerbating balance issues,” says Wilmarth. Get the okay to exercise; particularly if you’ve been a couch potato for a while.

Do Balance Exercises

One of the best ways to maintain and improve balance is through simple exercises that you can do at home. For starters:

Stand on one leg. Balance on one leg while bending the opposite leg backwards. Try to remain standing for at least 30 seconds (start with five to 10 seconds if that’s all you can do and build up over time). Lower the bent leg and repeat the exercise on the opposite side. Do the entire sequence three times. Be sure to have a chair or counter handy in case you feel unsteady. Aim to build up to 60 seconds on each leg. Increase repetitions until you get up to five to 10 at a time.

Sit to stand. This exercise, says Wilmarth, is done from a firm chair without arm rests. Keep your back straight and lift yourself straight up towards the ceiling. Lower yourself the same way in slow, controlled motions. This works your thigh and gluteal muscles and keeps your core muscles engaged. Try to build up to 10 repetitions at a time.

Tandem walking. Put one foot in front of the other and walk toe to heel (as if you were walking a tight rope) for the length of a kitchen counter. Repeat five to 10 times.

“The exercises that you can do on your own are simple and help a lot,” says Bodenrader. “Sometimes I try to do them with my eyes closed when I am near my kitchen counter so I can hold on if I need to do so.” With all balance exercises, be sure to have a firm surface to steady yourself, if needed.

Give Tai Chi and Yoga a Chance

Both tai chi and yoga involve stretching and focus on breathing to integrate the body and mind. Not only do they improve balance, flexibility, range of motion and strength but they also enhance mood and well-being. While tai chi emphasizes stretching through fluid motions, yoga incorporates fixed postures. Bodenrader says that taking tai chi classes has not only helped with her balance but also soothes her soul. “I enjoy tai chi because it’s relaxing and calming,” she states. “It also works on strength and balance at the same time.”

Walk this Way

If you’re not a big fan of aerobics, try going for regular walks to work on cardiovascular conditioning. As your body becomes accustomed to your regular jaunts, challenge yourself to pick up the pace. If you can, add an occasional jog, or sprint, to your session. Aim for 30 minutes at least five days a week. You’ll not only improve your balance but reap a host of other health benefits as well.

Don’t Wait

“I would recommend that people get help sooner than later,” says Bodenrader, who now walks on a regular basis, tries to get to the gym as often as possible, and regularly does exercises that are balance specific. Even when her schedule keeps her from contributing as much time to preserving her balance as she’d like, she notices that every little bit helps.

Physical therapist Wilmarth emphasizes that you shouldn’t wait to experience a balance problem before you address it. “It’s never too early to start thinking about balance,” says Wilmarth. “The more your body is used to being able to balance the better.” Just like any sport, she adds, the more you practice the better you get!  To find a physical therapist in your area see the American Physical Therapy Association’s consumer website at moveforwardpt.com.

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Kathleen Heins
Kathleen Heins has been published in Better Homes & Gardens, Woman’s Day, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Reader’s Digest, Runner’s World and USA Weekend, among other publications. She has also written for a number of major city newspapers. A native New Yorker, she now lives in Greenville, South Carolina.