You wobble slightly stepping off a curb, then down you go. In the second or two before you hit the pavement, you wonder what happened to that great sense of balance you used to have.
It doesn’t stay steady throughout life. Like muscles and bones, steadiness can deteriorate if not maintained. And balance training just isn’t part of most workouts.
Balance is something that people never think about, That is until a slip, trip or fall happens.
The end result can be serious: Falls in older people can result in a broken hip, which, in turn, can trigger a downward spiral into dependence and ill health. Even a fear of falling can keep someone housebound for months.
A study in the International Journal of Rehabilitation Research in 2010 found that elderly people enrolled in an eight-week balance or weight training program were less likely to slip and were more likely to recover if they did slip.
Better still if people start working on their balance earlier on, in midlife.
Training starts with strengthening all the muscles in the body, To do the activities of daily living as they relate to balance — walking down the stairs, getting in and out of the bathtub — is really about maintaining muscle strength.
This can be done with an overall weight training program. For those who haven’t been to the gym in a while — or ever — that training should start with the basics and get progressively more difficult so that the muscles are always challenged.
Your ultimate goal is to be able to maintain your balance in tricky situations, If we have a patient with poor balance skills, we start off with safe floor exercises, then progress to standing on two feet, then on one leg. If they can do that without assistance, that means they have challenged their systems to the point where they’re sufficient for everyday functional activities.
Training almost always involves targeting core muscles — the ones surrounding the trunk and the back, such as the abdominals, obliques and latissimus dorsi. But it doesn’t end there. For the balance we need for daily living, strength comes from the legs and goes through the core.
People who want to advance their balance training can invest in equipment such as Bosu Balance Trainers, stability balls and wobble boards. Bosus — half-sphere inflatable balls that are wobbly when stood on or sat upon — can be used without any other equipment, or with light weights or other gear for even more demanding workouts. Just doing a simple squat or a lunge on a Bosu offers great balance training.
Even cardio workouts should involve some instability. Elliptical trainers, stationary bikes and other cardio machines may raise the heart rate sufficiently, but they always offer an even, steady surface — and that does precious little for preserving someone’s balance. Taking a class, playing a sport, or walking, running or cycling outside force the body to travel in more planes of movement.
Pilates and yoga can help develop core muscles as well. In yoga, you’re doing a lot of standing poses, so you have to learn to gauge your core stabilizing muscles — otherwise, you’ll tip over. Martial arts training, which often involves standing on one leg, also improves stability, as do many boot camp classes.
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