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Our ability to maintain our balance is one of the many things that deteriorate with age. Typically, this occurs over time, and manifests in non-obvious ways, such as declining handwriting and increased clumsiness. The result is the patient often failing to immediately notice balance difficulties.

Lack of balance leads to an increased danger of falling (a serious danger for older adults), as well as decreased mobility and quality of life. Luckily, you can improve balance with strategic lifestyle changes.

What is Balance?

Proper weight distribution leads to greater stability and balance. For example, in a balanced stance, the feet are about should-width apart, the weight distributed evenly over the balls and heels of your feet. To attain it, image a string extending from the top of your head to the ceiling pulling you upright.

Good balance uses numerous parts of the body, including the:

  • Bones
  • Central nervous system
  • Eyes
  • Inner ear
  • Joints
  • Muscles

If you have trouble with any of these, it may affect your sense of balance. In addition, age brings its own challenges to good balance, including:

  • Health challenges, such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and stroke
  • Inner ear disorders such as Meniere’s disease
  • Major muscle weakness, such as those in the abdomen, back, and thighs
  • Medications, such as antihistamines, pain medications, mental health prescriptions, and sleeping pills
  • Nerve damage, such as neuropathy, especially in the legs and feet
  • Vision problems, such as cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration

Schedule an appointment with your doctor to determine whether any of these issues apply to you or impact your balance.

s directly impacts communication between the brain and nervous system.

How Does Your Sense of Balance Work?

When you move, whether walking across the room, rising from your chair, or taking a hike, all of the elements of good balance work together to keep you stable.

It starts with visual cues, information your eyes gather about your environment. This includes obstacles, uneven terrain, and other potential dangers. Next is information from the vestibular system of your inner ear. The fluid contained here helps determine the position and movement of your head, and is why you got dizzy as a kid playing on the merry-go-round. Your joints also send information to your brain, further aiding stability.

The Dangers of Poor Balance

One of the main dangers of poor balance, especially in older people, is the increased risk of falling.

The CDC reports that over 25 percent of people over age 65 fall each year, with the majority never telling their physician. What does that look like in actual numbers?

  • 8 million falls
  • 800,000 hospitalized due to injury
  • 300,000 hospitalized due to hip fracture

After hip fractures, traumatic brain injuries are the most common injury sustained in a fall. What’s more, once you fall, your chances of falling again more than double.

Poor balance also negatively impacts your overall fitness, as it often causes people to avoid exercise and a generally active lifestyle.

Improving Balance with Exercise

One of the best ways to increase your sense of balance is exercise (talk to your doctor to determine a healthy exercise program). Strength training helps build muscles, increasing their ability to support your body and therefore improving stability.

The following exercises work well to build your strength and improve stability. However, talk to your doctor before beginning any exercise program, especially if you are new to exercise.

  • Chair stand: Position a sturdy chair (such as a dining room chair) with the back against the wall, and a small pillow placed against the back of the chair. Sit at the front of the chair, with both feet flat on the floor, slightly apart, and knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Cross your arms over your chest and lean back, resting against the pillow. With your back and shoulders straight, slowly rise back into an upright position and then slowly stand, without using your hands (if possible). Slowly sit back down, rest, and repeat. Repetitions: 8 to 12.
    • Challenge: Attach an ankle weight as your strength improves.
  • Hip extension: Stand approximately 12 inches behind your sturdy chair, holding onto the chair back. Bend toward the chair to a 45-degree angle and slowly raise your right leg behind you, without bending your knee, as high as possible. Pause for a count of two and then slowly lower your leg, repeating the exercise 8 to 12 times. Now, switch to your left leg, again repeating the exercise 8 to 12 times. Repetition: 2 to 4 complete sets for each leg.
    • Challenge: Attach an ankle weight as your strength improves.
  • Side leg raise: Stand behind your sturdy chair with your feet together while holding onto the chair back. Slowly lift your right leg to your right side, keeping your knee straight, similar to opening scissors. Pause for a count of two, and then slowly lower your leg again; repeat 8 to 12 times. Now, switch to your left leg, again repeating the exercise 8 to 12 times. Repetition: 2 to 4 complete sets for each leg.
    • Challenge: Attach an ankle weight as your strength improves.
  • Single leg stance: Standing behind your sturdy chair for support, stand on one leg for up to 30 seconds (as long as you can). Repeat with the opposite leg. Repetitions: 2 to 4 times per leg.
  • Standing calf raise: Start both feet flat on the floor, standing behind your sturdy chair for balance. Slowly rise to your tiptoes, hold for a count of 2, and then slowly lower yourself. Rest and repeat. Repetitions: 8 to 12.

Woman dressed in blue practicing Tai Chi Vista CAIn addition to strength-building exercises, Tai Chi is highly effective in improving balance, with many doctors prescribing Tai Chi for their patients battling Parkinson’s disease.

Reduce Your Risk of Falling

Exercising and improving core strength is only one piece of improving balance and reducing your risk of falling.

Start by talking to your doctor, asking him or her to evaluate your sense of balance and risk of falling. This should include reviewing both prescription and over-the-counter medications, and an eye test to ensure your vision presents no impediments to your balance. In addition, talk to your physician about supplements, such as vitamin D, to improve bone health.

Next, look at your environment. Make sure floors are clear of obstructions and that your home is well-lit. Add no-slip pads to rugs, or tack them to the floor. If possible, install safety features, such as railings on both sides of staircases and grab bars in your bathroom.

With proper care of both your body and your home, you’ll reduce your risk of falling and improve your sense of balance.