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Do you wobble or need to grab a chair when putting on your pants? If so, you’re in good company.
Balance slowly deteriorates with age, often going unnoticed until the first time you feel unsteady pulling on your favourite pair of jeans. Deficits in balance increase the risk of falling, which is embarrassing when you’re younger but far more serious when you’re elderly. Falls are the leading cause of injury-related hospitalizations and deaths among those 65 and older.
Balance is regulated in the brain, which processes three separate streams of sensory information and adjusts accordingly to keep you upright. With age, the speed of that cognitive processing slows down. Add that to the loss of muscle associated with aging and a history of injury to knees, hips and ankles, which are important pillars to better balance, and there’s a reason why you need to sit down to take your boots off.
But there’s more to poor balance than a lack of steadiness while doing the chores of everyday life, like going up and down stairs. Walking, running and land-based sports are all altered when one-legged balance is compromised, which increases the risk of injury and the chance you’ll take a tumble when suddenly thrown off balance.
How do you rate your balance? There’s a simple test that can be done at home to determine how stable you are on your feet. It can also be performed by aging parents to better inform caregivers about deficits in balance.
Before trying, make sure there’s a chair or other support available should you start to sway. Then find a flat surface and remove shoes and socks. Lift one leg and hook the forefoot of the lifted leg behind the support leg, just under the calf. Keep your arms by your sides and find a focal point at eye level to set your gaze. Once you’re balanced, count to 10. Repeat up to three times on the same support leg, in case you have trouble getting the hang of it, then try the same exercise using the other leg. Judge your efforts with a YES if you maintained your balance and NO if you put your foot down or needed support anytime during the 10-second test.
How do your test results compare to others your age and what does it mean if your test results are a NO?
A research team used this same test to better understand how soon balance starts to deteriorate among the over 50-crowd and the implications of a NO result on longevity. Of the 1,702 individuals between 51 and 75 who were tested, 20 per cent failed. When broken down by age, the number of people who couldn’t stand on one leg for 10 seconds almost doubled at each five-year increment starting at the 51-55 age group.
“The portion of NO responders was 4.7 per cent among those 51–55 years, 8.1 per cent at 56-60 years, 17.8 at 61-65 years and 36.8 at 66-70 years,” the researchers said.
As for those in the 71–75 age group, they were more than 11 times more likely to fail the 10-second one-legged balance test than those in their early 50s. When it comes to mortality rates, middle-age and older adults who were unsuccessful at the 10-second balance test had a shorter life expectancy by about seven years compared with those who were successful.
Does that mean it’s a given that balance will degrade over time? Yes and no. Eventually we’ll all be sitting down to put on our pants. But there are ways to slow down balance deficits as we age. Several studies have reported that the physically active have better balance than their age-matched sedentary counterparts, which means the gym is a good place to decelerate the loss of balance that occurs as the decades add up.
You don’t need to be super fit to pass the balance test. But what you need to do is consider balance-training as part of your workout — no matter what your age. Yoga is one of the best ways to hone your balance with most practices featuring lots of one-legged poses or poses with a narrow base of support, both of which provide the kind of challenge needed to stimulate the sensory pathways from your limbs to your brain.
You can also consider adding balance exercises to your everyday routine. Practise standing on one foot and then the other while brushing your teeth or washing the dishes — using the counter to lean into if needed. Once you feel confident with static balance poses, consider reaching the lifted leg away from the body’s midline, making balancing harder. Got that mastered? Try the 10-second one-legged stance with your eyes closed, making sure you have something sturdy to grab hold if you wobble.
The bottom line is balance is trainable. And it’s never too late to get back some, if not all, the balance you lost. Better yet, start incorporating balance training into your workout long before it starts to diminish, keeping you well-grounded for as long as possible.
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