Each year, approximately one in three adults over the age of 65 falls at least once (1). That number is staggering. Good balance is the key to remaining independent and injury free throughout our retirement years. Take a walk into any physical therapy office and you will see many patients struggling to improve their balance. “I have never had good balance,” or “Wow, when did my balance get so bad?” patients exclaim as they struggle to stand on one foot.
While maintaining balance may seem like a simple task, being “balanced” requires multiple systems in our body to communicate and work well with each other. Good balance utilizes our visual system (eyes), somatosensory system (sensation of what surface we are on or where our joints are in space), proprioception (our muscles, joints, and posture), and vestibular system (inner ear/equilibrium). All of these systems provide important information to our brain for our ability to stay upright and not unexpectedly end up on the ground. With so many pieces making up our balance, it’s no wonder we get unsteady as we age!
If you are thinking, “My balance has always been bad, there is no way to fix it now,” I urge you to read on and watch the video below. Just like any other skill, practice makes perfect! There are countless ways to improve your balance and we will cover some simple exercises you can do right at home to challenge your balance.
Test Your Balance in Different Positions
There is a very quick test to perform to see how your balance stacks up. Stand next to your countertop and hold on with one hand. Begin with your feet close together and balance for 30 seconds. If this is easy, try with your feet in a “tightrope” position – we call this Tandem Balance. If that is easy, you are ready to stand on 1 foot.
Where our feet are placed in relation to the rest of our body (base of support) will either make it easier or harder for us to balance. Find the position that is challenging, yet safe, for YOU and practice this position every day!
Challenge Your Vestibular System
Another common story I hear is of people falling while simply walking in public and turning their head to see something. Turning your head changes your vision and challenges the inner ear. How can you avoid falling in this matter? Add head turns to the balance exercises we have already covered. While standing with your feet together, in tandem, or on one foot, you can turn your head left and right or up and down. These can be added to any of the previous exercises as a way to make it more difficult.
Take Away Your Eyes
Now that you have progressed through narrowing base of support and turning your head, we can make these exercises a little more challenging. Another common source of falling is getting up at night to use the restroom. When it is dark, our visual system is unable to help us balance. Meaning, we must rely more heavily on our inner ear (vestibular system) and somatosensory systems. To replicate this common source of injury, you can practice the postures we just discussed, but with your eyes closed. This is a BIG jump in balance ability. Start with the feet together posture and work your way to single limb stance if you are able.
These are just a few ways to challenge your balance. For more ideas, please check out this quick video to challenge yourself even further!
If you have more questions, click below to schedule your free discovery visit with a physical therapist.
1. Shumway-Cook A, Baldwin M, Polissar N, Gruber W. Predicting the probability of falls in community-dwelling older adults. Physical Therapy. 1997; 77(8): 812-819.