Dear Savvy Senior,
I've always been a walker, but when I fell last month my doctor suggested I start doing some balance exercises. Is this really something I need to practice? What can you tell me?
Most people don't think much about practicing their balance, but you should, the same way that you walk to strengthen your heart, lungs and overall health, or you stretch to keep your body limber.
As we age, our balance declines -- if it isn't practiced -- and can cause falls. Every year more than one in three people age 65 years or older fall, and the risk increases with age. A simple fall can cause a serious fracture of the hip, pelvis, spine, arm, hand or ankle, which can lead to hospital stays, disability, loss of independence and even death.
How Balance Works
Balance is the ability to distribute your weight in a way that enables you to hold a steady position or move at will without falling. It's determined by a complex combination of muscle strength, visual inputs, the inner ear and the work of specialized receptors in the nerves of your joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons that orient you in relation to other objects.
It's all sorted out in the sensory cortex of your brain, which takes in the information from those sources to give you balance. But aging dulls our balance senses, and causes most seniors to gradually become less stable on their feet over time.
Poor balance can also lead to a vicious cycle of inactivity. You feel a little unsteady, so you curtail certain activities. If you're inactive, you're not challenging your balance systems or using your muscles. As a result, both balance and strength suffer. Simple acts like strolling through a grocery store or getting up from a chair become trickier. That shakes your confidence, so you become even less active.
If you have a balance problem that is not tied to illness, medication or some other specific cause, simple exercises can help preserve and improve your balance. Some basic exercises you can do anytime include:
* One-legged stands: Stand on one foot for 30 seconds, or longer, then switch to the other foot. You can do this while brushing your teeth or waiting around somewhere. In the beginning, you might want to have a wall or chair to hold on to.
* Heel rises: While standing, rise up on your toes as far as you can. Then drop back to the starting position and repeat the process 10 to 20 times. You can make this more difficult by holding light hand weights.
* Heel-toe walk: Take 20 steps while looking straight ahead. Think of a field sobriety test.
* Sit-to-stand: Without using your hands, get up from a straight-backed chair and sit back down 10 to 20 times. This improves balance and leg strength.
For additional balance exercises visit go4life.nia.nih.gov, a resource created by the National Institute on Aging that offers free booklets and a DVD that provides illustrated examples of many appropriate exercises. You can order your free copies online or by calling 800-222-2225.
Some other exercises that can help improve your balance and flexibility is through tai chi and yoga. To locate a beginner's class in your area that teaches either of these disciplines, call your local senior center, health club or wellness center, check your yellow pages or try online directory sites like americantaichi.net and yogafinder.com.
If nothing is available near you, there are DVDs and videos that offer tai chi and yoga instructions and routines for seniors that you can do at home. Some good resources for finding them are amazon.com, collagevideo.com and iefit.com, or check with your local public library.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.