Over 15% of America will be age 65 or older by 2020. That’s over 50 million Americans! As a society, we’re improving life expectancy in great strides. As we continue to add years onto our lives, we must take into account the quality of those years. We must realize that our daily choices impact our body and overall wellness. As we age, it takes more careful deliberation to curate the most optimal food choices and exercise routines. Ensuring that you work daily movement into your routine is vital. However, some daily movement practices along with the natural aging process can lead to an increased chance of fall or injury. As we age, our cognitive processing, sensory systems, and reaction times all experience some overall decline. Lack of proper stimulation to these systems have detrimental effects on our balance and ability to perform daily tasks. These are serious concerns, as a fall can lead to hospitalization, immobilization, and injuries which can be detrimental to overall health.
So, what is the best way to prevent falls? Let’s be clear - not all falls can be avoided. We live in a world full of obstacles and challenges. What we can focus on is improving balance, reaction time, and strength to best protect against falls. There are various factors that influence our balance. The systems that govern our balance include our somatosensory system (think tactile feedback), visual system, and vestibular system (inner ear). All of these systems must be functioning well for good balance.
Exercises to challenge your somatosensory system include those than narrow your base of support (distance between your feet) or those that create an unstable surface below your feet (soft cushion or wobble board). A beginning exercise to challenge your balance is to stand in a corner with a chair in front of you. Then, bring your feet all the way together. Challenge yourself by taking one hand off the chair, then the other. If this is easy, you can bring one foot in front of the other (heel to toe).
Many of us heavily rely on our visual system for balance. Nevertheless, this can become an issue if we’re getting up in the middle of the night to use the restroom or walking on a dark lit street. It can even become an issue if our vision starts to decline. Besides getting your vision checked regularly, you should consider challenging your visual system. Ways to challenge your visual system are simple...just stand with your eyes closed! As this gets easier, you can work with your physical therapist to perform moving activities with eyes closed.
The vestibular system consists of the structures of the inner ear on either side of the head. These structures send signals to the brain telling it where we are in space. To challenge this system, we typically add head movements to our balance challenges. An example of this would include standing with feet together or one in front of the other and looking side to side. You can also look up and down. This can be performed statically or dynamically (walking).
If performing these exercises on your own, be sure to perform in a corner with a chair in front of you to ensure optimal safety. If you do not feel that you can safely perform these exercises, please perform with a licensed physical therapist.
In a recent study in the Journal of American Medical Directors, 221 participants in care facilities performed an exercise program consisting of the balance exercises mentioned above along with a few arm strengthening exercises, standing up from a chair, and stepping exercises. The participants performed these exercises for two hours a week over 25 weeks as well as ‘maintenance’ sessions for the following 6 months. The participants experienced a 55% reduction in falls! That’s huge. The program is similar to the one curated for the balance class offered at The Cypress Center. Our class is taught by a licensed physical therapist and vestibular specialist every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Balance is an area of our health where we can see improvements with consistent practice. Take control of your health and aging. Besides maintaining good balance, reaction time, and strength, it’s also important to live a healthy lifestyle. This means making sure all your basics are covered. Get good, quality sleep with minimal disturbances. Eat clean, whole foods that don’t come from a box. Making sure that your body is functioning as optimally as possible is going to make you better able to deal with all that life throws at you. Your body is the only sacred vessel that you have to get you through this life - treat it well!
Hewitt et al. Progressive Resistance and Balance Training for Falls Prevention in Long-Term Residential Aged Care: A Cluster Randomized Trial of the Sunbeam Program. JAMDA. 2018.