How to improve balance and feel more confident
“Life is a balance between holding on and letting go”
As I gingerly picked my way through the snow and ice this morning, I was reminded about how women of my age start to have insidious changes in their balance system (this is the nerdy stuff I think about on my commute to work). I took a bad fall on black ice a few years ago and am definitely more careful about how I get around in winter weather.
What about you? Have you ever felt that funny feeling of suddenly slowing down descending a flight of steps, or of being less confident on an uneven surface? These are the small changes that creep into our balance as we age.
The balance system is a complex (and amazing, really) part of our body that many of us largely ignore until it becomes problematic. Most people become much more aware of their balance after having a fall or having a change in their mobility. Falls and mobility changes may seem like something reserved for much older people but subtle changes in our balance begin relatively early in the ageing process. To understand this change we must first understand what contributes to balance.
Think about your balance system as having two questions throughout the day:
1. Where am I?
2. Where do I want to be?
When your body asks the, “Where am I?” question, the answer it’s looking for is about where your body position is compared to the environment around it. In order to figure this out, we have to combine a number of different sensory inputs, including our vestibular, visual, and somatosensory organs. Stick with me here…
This simply means that your body is grabbing information from your eyes, your touch and pressure sensations through your feet, and through the internal GPS system in your inner ear. All the sensory information about your environment is integrated into your central nervous system and interpreted by the brain to figure out what to do next.
When the body responds to sensory information with the, “Where do I want to be?” question, it starts a complex dance between neurons, joints and muscles. Muscles play a particularly important role, especially leg muscles and stabilizing muscles in your hips.
One of the ways in which you can strengthen your body’s response to the shifting demands on your balance is to make sure that you have strong hip and leg muscles. Think about how you get in and out of a chair: Do you sit down in a slow and controlled way, or do you tend to “drop” into a chair? What about when you get up from a chair? If you crossed your arms across your chest, would getting up be noticeably more difficult? What about if you had to get up and down multiple times with arms crossed? If you have difficulty with any of these exercises, you may have lost a bit of strength in your legs and/or hips.
There are many simple exercises that can increase your leg and hip strength. Some of the best and most simple exercises for strengthening are clamshells, squats, hamstring curls, and lunges. These exercises can be done at home with no equipment.
There are other easy things that you can do to improve your overall balance:
1. Make sure to have your eyes checked regularly and have your eyeglasses prescription updated. And really, there are so many funky frames these days, who doesn’t want to wear glasses?
2. Sit less and move more. Seriously. It’s that simple. More daily movement is great for so many things, but also gives you an opportunity to challenge your balance throughout the day.
3. Try some simple balance-specific exercises. Basic balance exercises don’t need special equipment or a dedicated time – just a few minutes during the day. Make sure you keep your shoes on to do balance exercises (the added barrier between your feet and the floor challenges that pressure and touch part of the balance system more).
4. Pick a focal point at eye level when you’re walking. This sounds strange, but the older folks who are hunched over looking at their feet, got to that stage very gradually.
If you want to learn how to do balance training, I've included a whole section of exercises in our brand new membership site (opening February 1, 2020).
Your sister in health,
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