In a New York Times (Health) article on balance, Scott McCredie, a Seattle-based health and science writer said a person's ability to maintain good balance begins to decline at age 20. By the age of 65, one in three people fall each year, sometimes causing problems that lead to medical treatment and perhaps permanent damage.
Vertigo, which is an extreme loss of balance, can be caused by inner ear infections, low blood pressure, medications and chronic diseases. Do you remember what it is like to spin around and around in a circle? That is what vertigo feels like, and it can be very disorienting and dangerous.
There are also some factors of aging that lead to poor balance. Sensory skills and abilities begin to decline, such as vision, sensory receptors on the bottoms of the feet that respond to position and movement and the tiny hairs in the inner ear that communicate gravity and motion information to the brain. When you pair that with a loss in muscle tone and flexibility, you have a fall "waiting to happen."
However, physical therapists and fitness experts have shown balance can be improved through exercises that are simple and easy, and require no special equipment.
Dr. Marilyn Moffat, professor of physical therapy at New York University, states that balance is a motor skill and in order to preserve this skill you have to train your body through exercise of the ankle, knee and hip. Also, exercises that improve the vestibular system help the body adjust to changes in position without becoming dizzy, especially after sitting for a long period of time.
She encourages people to make these exercises part of their everyday routine. For example, you can improve your balance by standing on one foot while brushing your teeth (using the counter to remain steady if you need to) or walking heel to toe, putting one foot directly in front of the other.
Readers can learn more by attending a special program co-sponsored by HealthLink, Fulton County Office For Aging, and Fulton County YMCA called "Improve Balance & Prevent Falls" on Wednesday at 1 p.m. This free, two-hour class will teach participants practical prevention steps to prevent falls, exercises to improve motor skills, and what to do in the event of a fall. Presenters include William Oates, director of Littauer's Rehab Medicine Services; Margaret Luck, Lifeline Littauer coordinator; and Veronica Quinn, YMCA fitness instructor. Transportation will be available. To attend, call OFA at 736-5650.
Dr. Moffat also recommends Tai Chi, a centuries old Chinese art of slow, rhythmic, meditative movements designed, in part, to help improve balance. In fact, research shows that people who practice Tai Chi have improved balance and a reduced risk of falls.
HealthLink offers Tai Chi classes at the Johnstown senior center. This particular type of Tai Chi was developed to address symptoms of arthritis and has been endorsed by the Arthritis Foundation. Not only does it help to improve balance, it also addresses issues caused by arthritis, like stiff muscles and joints, as well as restoring a feeling of calmness and relaxation. Participants learn relaxing warm up exercises, six gentle Tai Chi movements and cool down exercises while listening to soft meditative music, and learning the principles of movement and balance.
Please remember that even though our senses and motor skills decline with age, balance is a skill that can be preserved through exercise. Exercise, at any age, should be part of a normal daily routine. If you have not been exercising regularly, just do as much as you can do and in time you will see that your stamina has increased, you will feel more energized, and you will notice a difference in your strength.
Try some of the recommended exercises, or call HealthLink to learn more about our classes. You will be glad that you did. Namaste!
For more information, call HealthLink Littauer at 736-1120. People can e-mail HealthLink at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit its website at nlh.org, or visit its wellness center at 213 Harrison St. Ext. in Johnstown, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Wendy Chirieleison is a community health educator for HealthLink Littauer.