Better balance in 10 minutes a day
A few weeks ago, I wrote about why falling is so dangerous, especially for seniors. Today, I'm going to talk about how to improve balance, which magically helps keep us on our own two feet.
Having good balance is important to many of the activities of daily living that define our quality of life. Activities as simple as walking, getting up from a chair and navigating stairs require good balance, as does walking on different surfaces (pavement vs. grass), stepping onto curbs and getting in and out of cars.
In my practice as a private patient advocate, I see a lot of clients whose lack of balance and strength has landed them in wheelchairs.
One of the things that good balance does is give you proprioception -- a big word that simply means knowing where your body is in space. It's one of the keys to preventing falls. It also helps you avoid knee and ankle injuries, parts of the body that are prone to reinjure over and over. It also improves reaction time, so maybe you can grab that dirty spoon before it hits the floor or hit the brakes faster.
When we work on our balance, we're not just using our legs. We're making various core muscle groups work together in ways they may not have from years of sitting at a desk or on the couch. This can improve posture and strength, which may reduce the chances of getting arthritis or suffering back pain.
Good balance may even help the brain. In one study, elderly women who complained of memory problems and confusion were given balance training, resulting in improved cognitive abilities. Challenging the areas of our brain responsible for balance can actually benefit the whole brain. And who doesn't need that?
There are no excuses for not working on balance. It's good for any age or level of fitness. It doesn't cost anything. You can do it at home, indoors or outdoors, while brushing your teeth or getting dressed. Waiting in line at the checkout? Shift your weight from side to side to focus on balance.
You can wear shoes during balance exercises, but doing them barefoot on a variety of surfaces can strengthen feet and ankles even more. If you feel it puts you at too much risk of losing your balance, though, keep the shoes on.
So let's look at some basic balance exercises that you can do for just a few minutes as part of your daily routine. As always, check with your health care provider before beginning any exercise regimen.
• Stand on one foot and count to 10. If you can't get to 10, that's OK -- do what you can and try to count higher every day. To make it more challenging, lift small hand weights while balancing, set a timer for 15 or 20 seconds or even close your eyes. Can't balance at all? Use the back of a chair or a wall until you can balance on your own.
• Lift your knees as high as you can, one after the other, balancing for a few seconds between lifts. Again, incorporating hand weights makes it more challenging -- as well as helping you work on your upper body.
• Sit and stand without using your arms for 30 or so seconds. A dining chair or other straight-backed chair is good for this exercise. (Also works the upper legs and glutes.)
• Walk placing your heel just in front of the toes on the other foot. Try it on different surfaces. It's not as easy as it sounds!
The key to building balance and coordination and preventing injury from falling as we age is in mastering transitions between movements and developing muscles. For that, yoga is ideal. Basic moves like Mountain Pose, Downward Facing Dog or the Warrior Poses engage the legs and core and improve balance.
The slow, flowing motions of the ancient Chinese practice of tai chi also train you to shift your weight while maintaining balance. Plenty of beginner yoga and tai chi instruction can be found on YouTube. Try different ones until you find one that's comfortable.
There's almost nothing better than balance exercises to help you age gracefully, keep you out of the hospital -- and maybe most important, keep you out of a skilled nursing facility. Invest just a few minutes a day and you'll feel the difference.
• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates (www.NorthShoreRN.com). She is offering a free phone consultation to Daily Herald readers; call her at (847) 612-6684.