I often get asked why balance seems to decline with age, and if there’s anything that can be done about it. The simple answer is that if you don’t use it, you lose it. It really comes down to practice and making sure you’re challenging those systems that we used to challenge regularly when younger. As kids, we hopped around, played games and sports, maybe danced more and in general did many things that required us to use our vestibular and proprioceptive systems. As we get older, we tend to do almost everything on 2 feet, instead of 1 foot. Think how hopscotch, jumprope, and competitive sports that required jumping and quick acceleration and deceleration were a regular part of our lives in our youth.
However, there are changes at the cellular level that cause our balance to decline as we get older:
- Our vestibular system, contained within our inner ear, along with our spatial orientation sense with proprioceptors throughout the body, send messages to our brain to detect where our body is in space. When the vestibular system and brain determine that we’re about to fall over, the brain directs the body to take corrective action. Cells in the vestibular system die off as we get older. This affects our ability to correct our position. For example, if we start to tilt to the right and the vestibular system doesn’t detect this quickly, it becomes harder for the brain to prevent falling to the right.
- Our sight, the ability to focus and see things clearly, diminishes with age. So do depth perception, night vision and sensitivity to contrast. Eye problems can impair, blur or distort vision. The loss of these visual cues, which work closely with our vestibular system, compromises balance. Corrective lenses or surgery may help.
- Blood pressure can dip suddenly when you stand up, causing dizziness, lightheadedness, blurry vision, even fainting. Standing up slowly — sitting first on the side of the bed when you rise, for example — may help.
- We lose muscle mass and strength as we age. We also lose power — a combination of strength and speed — which affects balance, too. When you start to trip, if you have power, you can react swiftly. Exercise can help you rebuild or maintain strength and power.
- Our reflexes and coordination slow with age. Thus, you may be more likely to stumble — and take more time to react when you do.
Standing utilizes your sense of balance, sitting does not. Do activities that purposely use your balance to put yourself in a slightly unstable position so your balance is challenged in a safe environment. Now that you know the reasons that balance can decline as you get older, the good news is that most of these issues can be ameliorated with ….you guessed it – exercise and practice!
The cells that remain in our vestibular system can be conditioned to respond to movement, if we train them appropriately. Muscle mass and strength are, as you know, very responsive to resistance training, which is any kind of weight training. This includes dumbbells, thera-tubing and continuous loop bands. Even reflexes and coordination can be improved through activity and practicing new movements such as dance and any sequenced movements.
Other medical conditions, such as arthritis, neuropathy and pain can also impair balance. Certain medications may also interfere with steadiness on your feet. However, if you experience unexplained major changes in balance over a short period of time, you should consult a doctor.
An interesting study looked at some exercises that improved balance in people over age 65. Some of the exercises are detailed below, but for more information, see http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/id/QAA364517.
Try doing these exercises which take less than 10 minutes on a daily basis:
- Balance beam exercise – place your feet toe to heel, one in front of the other. Try to stay in this position for 30 seconds, then switch positions so your opposite foot is in front- repeat, then try a 30 second hold.
- Single leg stance- try holding one leg up with a bent knee for as long as you can, and time yourself, gradually working up to 1 minute on each side.
- Single leg stance with arm over head – Lift one leg with bent knee and same side arm overhead. Try to hold this position for 10 seconds, then repeat with opposite arm and leg.
- Stand on both feet and with arms outstretched to the side and elbows straight. Now make large arm circles, one arm at a time. Repeat, bringing arms in front of you and circling arms, one at a time. If this is easy, repeat standing on one leg.
- High marching – alternate lifting bent knees as high as you can. If this is easy do this very slowly.
Try these exercises to start, and time yourself until you gradually improve your ability. Ways to progress are to use ankle or wrist weights, and narrow your base of support by bringing your feet closer together when on both feet.
The take-away? Practice balance exercises daily to maintain your abilities. Do strength and resistance training to maintain your power. Challenge your coordination and reflexes through dance and sequenced movements, preferably novel ones.
Go ahead- defy the odds! Doing these exercises will keep you on your toes (and feet!)