For as long as I have been writing this column, I have been recommending a three-part fitness program of cardiovascular activity, strength training and flexibility. With this column, I am officially adding a fourth: balance. The older we get, the more urgent this becomes. As we age, we experience a decline in the multiple physiological systems. It takes longer to process sensory information and longer to respond to it. We lose muscle flexibility and strength. In other words, we slow down — sometimes in ways of which we are not aware.
As we slow down, the risk of falling goes up. The numbers are scary. Research tells us that one out of three adults over age 65 falls each year. Twenty percent to 30% of people who fall suffer moderate-to-severe injuries, such as lacerations, hip fractures or head trauma. Hip fracture is perhaps the greatest risk. Numerous studies have shown that the risk of death in the year following ranges from 20% to 25%, depending on race, sex, age and other medical problems.
It is common sense that overall fitness reduces these risks, but I am increasingly persuaded that loss of balance can be sneaky. Being less steady on the feet hurts the golf swing. That once-easy tennis shot is no longer within reach. And you can be on the ground or headed there before you realize that it’s a problem. Therefore, my new recommendation for activity focuses specifically on improving balance.
What to do
Because balance depends on multiple factors, including all the senses, cognitive processing and reaction time as well as muscle strength and flexibility, the key to improving it is doing more than one thing at a time or what we call multicomponent training. One example would be walking while completing a cognitive task such as counting backward; balancing on one leg while playing catch; or simply standing on one leg with your eyes closed. It sounds a lot easier than it is.
This kind of multitask training more closely replicates the activities of daily living in which performance is most likely to be challenged by a disturbance. What you do, of course, depends on multiple variables, beginning with what kind of condition you are in. Balance training can be as simple as sitting in a chair and alternately raising and lowering a leg. When that’s easy, do it with your arms across your chest. Then do it with your arms crossed and your eyes closed. Then do it sitting on a stability ball instead of a chair.
Progress from there to doing the same thing while standing and lifting your leg to the front, back and/or side. Then do it with your arms crossed. Also try it with weights on your legs. Then coordinate the leg movements with arm movements. And, finally, try it on an unstable surface, such as a balance pad or a BOSU ball.
You can also incorporate more focus on balance into your regular routine. Teachers and trainers are catching on to this and asking their students to do bicep curls and tricep extensions while standing on one leg.
If you are fitting balance work into a regular exercise routine, you want to do it early on. It can come after aerobic activity, but it should precede resistance and flexibility activity.
Where to do it
There are no pure balance classes currently being offered on Longboat Key. Sherry Fideler teaches Tai Chi, which is good for balance, at the Bayfront Park Recreation Center. The class usually begins in January, but Fideler says she can start any time there are enough students. Express your interest by calling her at 794-6904. Susan Goldfarb is evaluating a balance-specific seminar for the Longboat Key Education Center; encourage her by calling 383-8811. And, of course, yoga classes offered there and elsewhere are a good option. If you have a personal trainer, putting more emphasis on balance is as simple as communicating your desire to do so.
Among personal trainers of my acquaintance, “good balance” means being able to stand on one leg for 30 seconds — with your eyes closed. That’s my goal. I invite you to make it yours.
Molly Schechter is an ACE-certified personal trainer, with a specialty in older-adult fitness plus YogaFit Instructor Training, SCF Yoga Fundamentals and Power Pilates™ Mat Certifications. She teaches classes at the Bayfront Park Recreation Center and the Longboat Key Club. E-mail her at email@example.com.
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