Commentary: The future of your health is in the balance
Try this somewhere safe: Close your eyes and stand on one foot. With your eyes closed, tilt your head toward the ceiling. Are you able to balance?
If not, you’ve got plenty of company. Our balance, along with our bodies, begins to deteriorate over time. More than one-third of Americans over the age of 65 fall each year, leading to 27,000 deaths.
The good news is that balance is something you can strengthen through exercise.
Take the experiment I mentioned in the beginning. Balance is the function of your eyes, your muscles and joints and your vestibular system (which includes your inner ear) all working together. The experiment limited your vision, decreasing the number of systems you were using, really stressing your vestibular system and the sensory input from your legs.
By exercising those different systems, you can build up each of them over time. This is important because most of the people we see at the Hoag Rehabilitation Centers in Irvine and Newport Beach, are patients recovering from a fall. By building up your balance early, you can prevent an injury that can be devastating or even fatal.
In fact, a 2013 French study found that balance-strengthening exercise programs reduced falls that caused injuries by 37%, falls leading to serious injuries by 43%, and broken bones by 61%. New studies come out nearly every month touting refined, moderate to high-intensity balance exercise regimens that are proven to be effective against falls.
Unfortunately, balance isn’t on people’s radar. Most of us know the benefit of strength training and cardiovascular exercise, and yoga’s popularity has more people thinking about flexibility. But the benefits of balance training are not widely discussed.
With falls topping the list of reasons older adults end up in the emergency room, the hospital or, sadly, even the morgue, balance needs to be taken more seriously. The way I explain it to my patients is that balance is “the fourth leg,” the key ingredient that turns the three-legged stool of strength, cardio and flexibility into a far more stable chair.
In our practice, we work with patients individually on state-of-the-art equipment to build up their balance. But if you are not recovering from an injury that requires physical therapy, there are plenty of exercises you could try at home to build up your coordination.
• Time yourself standing on one foot. You can do this while brushing your teeth in your PJs. For an extra challenge, close your eyes. If you find this too difficult at first, try using the bathroom counter for a little support. As you progress over time, try holding the position longer and even moving more dynamically with your upper body.
• Walk heel-to-toe, as if on a balance beam.
• Walk down a hallway swinging your head left and right at a beat of two swings per second. If you need to stop, that’s fine. Build your balance up to the point that you can walk while moving your head and spot various things on the walls on either side of you.
• Practice rising from a chair without using your hands to push you up.
Just as we build up muscle in strength training or stamina during cardiovascular workouts, balance training allows us to augment our coordination. If you have Parkinson’s or other disorders that affect balance, be sure to consult a doctor before undergoing balance-building exercises. But if you are otherwise healthy, consider including coordination in your regular routine.
I hear all the time from our older clients that many enjoyable activities are abandoned for fear of falling. For example, going to the theater (due to low lighting) or enjoying a sandy beach (uneven terrain). They don’t have to be.
If we remember to include coordination as part of our healthcare regimen, we can conquer imbalance and prevent falls. Even with our eyes closed.
MARK GLAVINIC is director of Rehabilitation Services at Hoag Hospital.
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