As we age, our ability to balance takes a nose dive and falls become more common. This is why doctors urge seniors to practice balance exercises (like standing on one foot), and why we often see older folks doing tai chi poses in the park.
But Dr. James Katz, a preventive medicine doctor with a private concierge practice in Boston, believes everyone could benefit from regular balance training. Younger folks could benefit as well since improving balance not only prevents falls but helps prevent serious injuries when we do take a tumble off a bike or snowboard. The 63-year-old credits his own balance skills with preventing a fracture or concussion when he crashed his bike while heading into a Cambridge intersection last June (in order to avoid hitting a woman stopped in the crosswalk).
A 2013 study published in the British Medical Journal backs him up. In a review of 17 clinical trials involving more than 4300 participants over age 60, French researchers found that those who were taught to practice balance exercises each day had a 37 percent reduced risk of getting injured in a fall and a 61 percent lower risk of experiencing a broken bone from the fall, compared to those who didn’t practice the balancing exercises.
While I can understand how standing on one foot can help prevent falls by improving balance, how exactly can the exercise help people fall in a safer manner?
“Researchers can’t fully explain this,” Katz told me. “The theory is that those with a good sense of balance are aware milliseconds sooner that they’re falling and use primordial instincts to make adjustments and reduce damage from the impact.” They may bend their knee more or twist their torso to land on as much surface area of their body as possible and more evenly distribute the impact’s force.
Sounds like it makes sense, but as a 43-year-old, I’m thinking I’m a little young to be worried about maintaining my balance skills. Katz, though, disabused me of that notion.
“Your balance has probably already deteriorated a bit,” he said. “Your vision is likely okay, but your inner ear isn’t picking up signs as well as it used to.”
What’s more, I’m likely not as flexible as I used to be—something I’ve been working on by adding stretches and yoga poses to my daily exercise routine.
It certainly couldn’t hurt to incorporate a few minutes of balance exercises into my daily routine. Katz recommended the following:
1. Stand on one foot. Hold the back of a chair and stand on one foot for a count of 10 seconds. Repeat on the opposite foot and do four more sets. You can do this while standing in line at the grocery store or while holding onto a shopping cart. Eventually, you won’t need a cart to keep your balance. Simply lift one foot an inch off the floor, and touch it to the opposite ankle.
2. Put your socks on, standing up. Yes, this will require you to balance on one foot, then the other. As a beginner, lean against the bed, so if you lose your balance, you will land on something soft. Taking your time will help you stay upright, Katz said. This exercise will also strengthen your leg and core muscles.
3. Lift like a crane. Put an item, such as a coin, dollar bill, or tennis ball, on the seat of a chair. Balance on one foot, lean forward with a straight back, and pick up the item. Stand straight, transfer the object to your other hand, and put it back on the chair seat using the same crane posture that you used to retrieve it. As you develop this skill, place the object at lower heights until you can pick it up of the floor, 10 times on either foot. This exercise also strengthens the back, hips, and legs.