Kids make it look so easy: They fall down, laugh, get up, dust themselves off and happily get right back to whatever it was they were doing before they took a spill. But for adults, losing our balance isn’t quite so much fun.
Beginning in our 30s, our sense of balance can start to decline, and the associated risks increase with age: Falls among older adults cost the U.S. health care system $30 billion annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every year, one in three adults over 65 falls, with up to 30% suffering injuries that limit mobility. The good news, though, is that there are plenty of steps you can take to preserve and improve your balance.
The ABCs of stability
Simply put, “balance is the body’s ability to maintain equilibrium, whether you’re sitting, standing or moving,” says Marilyn Moffat, a professor of physical therapy at New York University and co-author of “Age-Defying Fitness”(Peachtree, 2006).
As accustomed as we are to standing, walking, even kicking back in our dining chairs, these actions require the involvement of a surprising number of bodily systems just to avoid devolving into a slapstick routine. Balance calls for the intricate coordination of the brain, the eyes, the musculoskeletal system and the inner ear’s vestibular system (which governs the sense of spatial orientation). Sensors in our knees and ankles, for instance, are fine-tuned to help us gauge the texture and grade of the ground we walk on and trigger us to adjust our steps accordingly. (Think of that sensation of stepping onto ice - and being able to right yourself in a nanosecond.)
But if joints become compromised for any reason - weakness, injury, arthritis - balance suffers. (The concern is greater when osteoporosis is involved, since a fall is more likely to lead to broken bones.) Even the way a lot of us sit at work, hunched over a keyboard, can cause us to walk with our heads pitched forward and our shoulders rounded, and can upset our balance and up the risk of falling, Moffat says.
Balance can decline more rapidly when linked to dizziness resulting from any number of conditions, such as inner-ear infections, brain trauma, autoimmune disorders and some- times even antibiotics that can be toxic to the inner ear. And vestibular migraines are “one of the most common causes of dizziness,” says Dr. David Friedland, director of the hearing and balance center of the Medical College of Wisconsin, in Milwaukee.
Afflicting far more women than men, these headaches are characterized by sensitivity to light and vertigo - a feeling of dizziness that tampers with your sense of balance. (They’re frequently misdiagnosed as benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, or BPPV, which can follow a head injury and temporarily causes a sense of spinning and unsteadiness.) The mere act of forgetting to put on your glasses can set you up for a fall, too: People who neglect to wear their glasses have significantly worse balance than people with normal vision.
If you experience any of these symptoms or notice long episodes of dizziness or unsteadiness, Friedland recommends checking in with your primary-care physician.
Improving your balance isn’t that tricky. Indeed, many personal trainers recommend factoring it into your workouts, since they consider stability indispensable to physical fitness. Yoga, for instance, is a great form of exercise that builds flexibility, strength and balance by requiring people to remain stable in standing positions - such as the one-footed tree pose - and also to “move dynamically from one pose to the next,” says Michele Kehrer, director of LifeStyle Physical Therapy & Balance Center, in Chicago. When you practice yoga, she adds, “your brain and body have to be working together, so it really strengthens your vestibular system.”
Pilates promotes balance, too, since it builds core strength, which we draw on constantly to stay upright, explains NYU’s Moffat. Trainers and physical therapists also steer clients to tai chi, which numerous studies have shown to improve balance; it’s been linked to a reduced incidence of falls in seniors and has been an especially effective balance-improving exercise for people with Parkinson’s disease. Even working out on the Wii Fit balance board is promising for older adults, according to a small study at Bucknell University.
This summer, you might also consider a workout on a stand-up paddleboard, or SUP. The activity entails standing on an oversize surfboard in water - be it the ocean, a lake or even a pool - and propelling it with a long oar. (World-famous surfer Laird Hamilton showed me how to paddleboard!) “Women students are always telling me that they want to improve their balance while doing something that’s fun. Since you’re standing on a stable board atop the unstable surface of the water, you’re always forced to do minor adjustments with your feet, core muscles and torso to keep in balance,” says personal trainer Dylan Engberg, founder of Stand-Up Paddle Denver. “I liken learning SUP to learning to ride a bike. Once you find your point of balance and get the wobbles out, the sky’s the limit.”
“Nobody was born walking on a tightrope,” says balance expert Friedland. But with practice, “a person can improve her balance system to a point where she can walk a thin wire.”
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