Have you noticed you are not as steady on your feet as you used to be? Is balance becoming more challenging? Are you worried you might fall? You are not alone. Balance is a common concern for many of us.
The physiological roots of balance are complex. It involves the integration of various sensory and motor systems in the brain and body, including:
- vision (to perceive direction and motion)
- vestibular system in the inner ear (which monitors motion and provides orientation clues, such as which way is up)
- proprioception (the ability to sense where your body is in space)
- muscle strength
- agility and reaction time
If any of these systems are not functioning properly, we can lose our balance or fall even while just walking or standing up.
The picturesque, strong, steady Tree Pose in yoga symbolizes what we might imagine when we think of having good balance. It definitely checks all the boxes. It requires focus, centering, strength, flexibility and being grounded. The reality is that balance can be more of a factor when we are moving, transitioning or adjusting. Falls don’t usually happen when we are standing still or in a steady state or pose.
Surprisingly, falls account for nearly one-third of all non-fatal injuries in the United States, according to the National Safety Council. For some, falls result in hurt egos, skinned knees or broken bones. For others, falls can signal the beginning of potential lifestyle changes.
A professor of mine at school has her office on the first floor. She took pride in her healthy lifestyle choice to use the stairs instead of the elevator to go to her classes. Day after day she would follow the same routine until one day she took a small fall and twisted her knee. Falling, especially as an older adult, can be very disconcerting. Thankfully she is fine but still has the lingering fear she might fall again if she takes the stairs and now takes the elevator.
Feeling like we are becoming less stable may cause us to be less physically confident and change how we feel about ourselves. A fear of falling could lead to a fear of moving. We may begin to limit our choices and activities. Over time these self imposed limits may lead to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle pattern. This is the opposite of what we need to do to maintain and improve balance.
So what can be done?
Step one – become empowered and confident that improving balance is possible. It is! Begin where you are. Be patient. Believe in yourself. Replace “My balance isn’t good enough to… (insert challenging yoga pose or exercise)” with “My balance is a work in progress and I CAN do my best to… (insert challenging yoga pose or exercise).
Step two – make the time in your daily schedule and commit to forms of physical and mental activities that challenge strength and balance. Balance is not a given and falls into the category of “use it or lose it.” Yoga,Tai Chi, dancing, kayaking, walking or hiking especially on uneven surfaces are great ways to have fun, create community and improve balance. Doing an activity that you like and brings you joy will help you stay motivated and on track.
In addition to increasing your activity and physically challenging the body, keep in mind other factors that might come into play. How is your vision? Do you need new glasses or contacts? Do you have cataracts? Are you taking medications that could affect your balance? Are you wearing appropriate shoes?
The good news is balance can be improved at any age and it’s never too late to start!