Just as a reduction in resistance training can make us weaker and fewer miles on the treadmill can reduce our cardiovascular fitness levels, maintaining good balance as you age requires a continued effort.
Such an effort, according to physical therapist and certified geriatric clinical specialist Judith Daniel, PT, MS, GCS, can help reduce the incidence of falls in older adults.
“Too many people erroneously consider falls a normal consequence of growing old,” said Daniel, who’s also a member of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Fall Prevention Task Force. “It’s simply not true. There are evidence-based interventions that can help reduce their risk of falling and reduce falls-related injuries.”
According to the CDC, more than one-third of U.S. adults 65 years and older fall each year, with up to 30 percent suffering moderate to severe injuries. The direct medical costs for fall injuries, the CDC adds, amount to around $34 billion annually.
Such statistics, Daniel points out, reinforce the need for aging adults to get regular exercise and receive a balance assessment.
“A comprehensive examination that includes a balance assessment performed by a physical therapist can be effective in determining the factors that are contributing to an individual’s loss of mobility, risk of falls, and/or decreased confidence,” she said. “Once this information has been gathered, the physical therapist can then determine which type of muscle strengthening and balance retraining program would be most beneficial to reduce the individual’s risk of falling.”
Without such a specific program, however, a person can still make strides toward maintaining good balance. Exercise as simple as walking can offer great benefits, but specific balance-enhancing exercises exist that are slightly more challenging, depending on your level of strength and balance.
Such “try at home” exercises, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the Mayo Clinic, include:
Weight Shifts: While in a standing position with your legs should-width apart, simply shift your weight to one leg, lifting the opposite foot from the floor, and hold for 30 seconds. Then, shift your weight to the other side and lift the other leg for 30 seconds. Repeat as your balance improves.
Single-Leg Balance: Still in your standing position, legs shoulder-width apart and hands on your hips, lift one leg from the floor and bend back at the knee, holding your toe about a foot off the ground. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat with the other leg.
Heel to Toe Walk: Put the heel of one foot in front of the toes of the other so they’re touching. With your eyes focused on a spot ahead, take a step, putting the heel of the stepping foot in front of the toes of the other. Repeat for 20 steps.
According to both the Mayo Clinic and the NIA, these exercises (and others like them) should be performed near a wall or something sturdy in case you become unsteady. And of course, before beginning any at-home exercises, consult a physician or a movement expert, such as a physical therapist, to schedule a balance assessment to ensure these types of exercises are right for you and your specific condition.
In addition, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) suggests older adults should have their medications reviewed by their health care providers, get their eyes checked by a doctor at least once per year, and reduce hazards and improve lighting at home.