Balance. Some of us talk about it as the struggle to manage our busy personal and professional lives and that’s certainly a relevant use of the term. But when we talk about older adults, balance, in the sense of physical ability, is critical.
It sounds like an easy thing but it is not. Balance involves more than muscles, it also involves our vision; the vestibular system in our inner ear which helps us with knowing “up” and “down” and sensing motion; and something called “proprioception,” which refers to a sense of our body and where we are in space. There are lots of elements to balance and if any one of them is not working properly, our ability to be steady is compromised.
Why does that matter? Well, one of our biggest risks as we age is the risk of falling. Falls can result in serious injuries, disabilities and even death. Keeping our balance skills strong can help us to achieve a healthier and stronger aging process.
Many older adults have balance challenges. Inactivity can cause a decline in strength and muscle tone, the old “use it or lose it” certainly applies. Excessive weight can throw off balance as can medical issues with the lower legs. Don’t underestimate the role of vision either, as not being able to see clearly, or seeing things in a distorted way, can reduce our steadiness significantly.
Balance can be assessed by a physical therapist and a plan for improvement instituted. We can also work on balance ourselves and with our loved ones. We can, in many cases, improve balance but it does take both some effort and some attention.
To start, any exercise that increases strength in the lower limbs is helpful. Walking is so important and needs to be a part of everyone’s daily routine. Too often we see older adults whose family wants to help them get around and provides them with an electric scooter. For folks who really need them, these devices are great. For those who can still walk, independently or with the support of a walker, using an electric scooter can discourage them from continuing to walk. The more they rely on the scooter and don’t walk, the more likely that they will become dependent on it and lose muscle tone and strength.
Other exercises can help and the National Institute of Health has a number of easy balance exercises that anyone can begin to incorporate in their lives, whether you are a regular exerciser or not. You can find those online.
Tai chi classes have actually been documented as making a difference in balance. Walking on uneven surfaces, like cobblestones, has also been suggested as a means of improving balance. Whatever you choose to do, balance matters. Doing something about it is within all of our grasps!