Aging is, unfortunately, inevitable. There are creams to exude youthful skin, cushioned shoes to create a spring in your step, and filters galore for your selfies (I just took a photo of myself with my DSLR and was highly disappointed at the result. Photo editing software is not overrated). But one area of aging that many people may not even notice slowly changing is their balance. You may notice that you’re less flexible, not as strong as you used to be, and have eyesight that maybe needs a little correction now. These things gradually make themselves known, and at an earlier age than we’d all like to admit. But balance changes can sneak up on you-despite the fact that balance is definitely affected by changes in flexibility, strength, and vision. Any self-preserving adult knows that they will likely stumble if crossing a balance beam at a park, so we stop doing these things. And then we stop walking on uneven surfaces and stick to sidewalks. And all of the sudden, we have protected our bodies to the point that when they are challenged, we are surprised at their less than optimal response.
Here is a test for you: in bare feet stand on one foot next to a counter top or somewhere you can easily grab something for support if needed. Don’t use your hands unless you need to, and don’t let your legs touch each other. Time yourself. Time stops when your hand touches something or you need to put your other foot down (do this safely!!). How long can you hold it? If you are in the age bracket of 60 to 69, average hold time is 32 seconds based on the general population, versus the 18 to 39 age bracket where average hold time is 44 seconds. By age 80 the hold time drops below 10 seconds. That’s a pretty significant change! Risk to fall is predicted by an inability hold a single leg balance of 10 seconds or less, and risk to fall with associated injury is predicted as a 5 second hold time or less. How did your own test compare?
It is my firm belief that balance should be incorporated into your daily routine-look at that drastic drop in ability to stand on one foot as we age! Yes, the risk of falling is multi-factorial, and medications definitely play a role. But we can work with what we have to prevent instability and fall risk that does cost elderly people their dignity and independence, and that work starts when you are younger. How do you incorporate balance into your day for prevention? See the list below:
- Check your vision and keep your prescription current. Many of us are vision dominant. If you want to know about yourself, stand on two feet and close your eyes! It’s pretty important!
- If you have had any lower body injuries or joint replacements get physical therapy. Any damage to a joint can interrupt the signal between the joint telling the brain where it is in space (called proprioception). It is important to retrain this, and to develop alternative strategies as needed, to support safety as we age.
- Stretch. If you have to fight tight muscles to stay upright (have you been sitting at your desk all day? Hello, hip flexor tension!), it will be harder for your body to use its support system (your musculoskeletal system) optimally.
- Strengthen. Staying strong or improving strength allows our musculoskeletal system to work optimally and keep us upright. And if we do start to tip it allows us to catch ourselves safely to return to upright, versus giving way under strain.
- Check your ears. Issues with your vestibular system also contribute to balance issues, as this system (also known as the inner ear) provides feedback to the brain about where the head and body are in space. Your PT or physician can further check this for you.
- Practice. Yoga and Tai Chi have been shown through research to improve balance and reduce the risk to fall. But if you are able to hold more than 10 seconds and feel confident and safe challenging your balance, do so! Stand near something sturdy that you can grab, just in case! You’ll do Tree Pose in no time.
You are likely already doing some of these suggestions. And strength and flexibility training are important for all sorts of reasons, so if they’re not already on your check list then definitely add those. But to add balance practice, you can do something as simple as standing on one foot while brushing your teeth with an electronic brush. When it beeps, switch feet!
Power is knowledge, let’s blow these normal data numbers out of the water (safely)! If you feel that you need help on your balance journey, or if you have already lost your balance and fallen, come see us at Edge Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation. We are all trained to optimize your safety and longevity. But we can’t help with selfie filters, we know nothing about that.