Countering Loss of Balance With Exercise

The skater gliding gracefully on one leg has it. So do the grandfather splitting wood, the schoolgirl hopping on a pogo stick and the yogi performing a headstand.

Good balance is both a gift of genetics and an athletic skill that can be improved through training. “Many people think you either have good balance or you don’t, but that’s not true,” says Peter Kormann, head coach of the 1996 U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics team. “With training and practice, nearly anyone can improve their balance.”

At a time when athletes will try nearly anything to boost performance, balance training has become increasingly popular in a variety of sports, from skiing to golf. Balance workouts also are booming among seniors, as new studies show that strength and balance exercises can help older adults reduce their risk of serious falls.

Poor balance more than doubles an older adult’s risk of being injured in a fall, reported a study published last year in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. University of New Mexico researchers followed more than 300 men and women over age 60 for three years and found that the ability to balance on one leg for five seconds is a good predictor of whether an elderly person is likely to sustain an injurious fall.


“Balance starts to decline when we’re in our 40s,” writes Tufts University physiologist Miriam Nelson in her book “Strong Women Stay Young” (Bantam Books, 1997). “This happens so slowly that it’s almost imperceptible.” Staying active can slow this decline. But sedentary people, by the time they reach their 70s, are likely to have balance that is so poor that they compensate by adopting a “shuffling gait,” using short steps to avoid having to balance on one foot.

To test your balance, Nelson suggests trying this: Close your eyes and--for safety--hold your hands just above a firm support, such as a sturdy chair or counter top. Then, keeping your eyes shut, slowly lift one foot and try to balance on the other leg. Count the seconds you remain balanced. Most women past age 40, unless they’re physically fit, discover they can’t hold the position for even 15 seconds, says Nelson, whose studies have been on women.

Men probably have a 10-year advantage over women in their ability to balance, she estimates, since men typically are stronger.

“Our studies show that the more active you are, the better your balance is likely to be,” says cardiologist James Rippe, an associate professor of medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. Active seniors can have better balance than sedentary people many years younger, says Rippe, who offers this test to see “how old” your equilibrium is:


Stand tall on two feet, then raise the foot of the leg you consider to be your weakest. Balance on the other, keeping your eyes open and your arms relaxed at your sides. If you can balance for at least 22 seconds, you have the equilibrium of a 20-year-old; 15 seconds, that of a 30-year-old; 7.2 seconds, that of a 40-year-old; 3.7 seconds, that of a 50-year-old; and 2.5 seconds, that of a 60-year-old.

Keeping strong is one of the best ways to aid balance, says geriatrician James O. Judge, vice president of medical affairs for Masonic Care, a geriatric health care system based in Wallingford, Conn. “Weight training to strengthen muscles in the buttocks, quadriceps and hamstrings can help improve balance,” notes Judge, who is studying exercises older people can do at home to reduce their risk of falls.

In addition, research shows that training in the martial art of tai chi--which involves slow, deliberate movements, trunk rotation and balancing on one leg--can reduce older adults’ risk of falling. Balance is affected by a variety of factors, including medications, alcohol, neurological disease, osteoporosis, low blood pressure and vision. But, in general, “use it or lose it” applies to the ability to balance. To improve yours, try these balance boosters from Olympic coach Kormann:

* Line up your joints. Knees, hips and shoulders should all be directly over each other.

* Visually focus on a still object. Keep your head in a neutral position with your eyes still and stare at a spot on the ground at about a 25-degree angle out in front of you. Stay focused on the spot as you challenge your balance by rising on your toes or lifting one leg.

* Keep your center of gravity over your base of support. Most people’s center is just below the navel. To balance on one foot, shift your weight over that foot before lifting the other leg.

* Use the whole surface of your foot. Feel your body weight on your entire foot--heel, ball, toes and both sides.

* Move slowly and rhythmically, with control. Jerky movements are likely to throw you off balance.


* Fitness runs Monday in Health.