Life is a continual balancing act. When we’re young, it may seem as though we’re able to take on everyday activities with ease. But, as we grow older, our senses and ability to efficiently perform multiple tasks at the same time start to slowly deteriorate. Even the simplest of simultaneous activities, such as walking and talking, can disrupt our balance and put us at risk for a serious fall-related injury.
Each year, a staggering one-third of all people older than age 65 will fall, with many sustaining severe or even fatal injuries. For this reason, the Institute for Aging Research’s Center for Translational Research in Mobility and Falls is devoted to research aimed at understanding what causes older adults to fall, which will hopefully lead to development of preventive measures. We found a direct correlation between balance and reduction of fall risk in older adults. Here are our findings, along with ways you can apply this knowledge to every day life:
Mobility, defined as the ability to independently navigate one’s environment to complete activities of daily living, is both physical and mental. On one hand, it depends upon your muscles and reflexes and their ability to create the movements necessary to help maintain balance. But, it’s also dependent on your ability to pay attention to the world around you, your short-term memory of where your legs and feet are located relative to the ground, and your ability to make the correct decision to change your movements when needed—like when the sidewalk becomes snow-covered.
In an effort to find ways to prevent falls among senior adults, we’ve started looking at exercises, like Tai Chi, that target both the physical and mental fundamentals in mobility.
The purposeful movements and fluid, repetitious motions in Tai Chi not only boost muscle function, but also stimulate the mental functions that make mobility a lot easier. Yoga and dance are also exercises that work well to improve balance in older adults and are great mind-body interventions. While walking on a treadmill, riding a bike or strength training are certainly all great exercises, they appear to lack the balance component necessary to most effectively prevent future falls.
Practice Makes Perfect
Our body’s balance control system is a complex operation. Just like an orchestra, there are many different pieces that have to work together for there to be perfect harmony. The more we practice Tai Chi, dance or yoga, the more we become in sync with our bodies, and the more our bodies become in sync with our environment.
This type of healthy, cyclical practice eventually makes it easier for us to engage in daily, dual-task activities without the focus being solely on the next step we take. As the old adage goes, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
Begin Your Balance Regimen Now
It’s never too late or too early to begin purposeful exercises that will help achieve greater balance. In fact, I was recently interviewed for an article in the Boston Globe that discussed how more young people are becoming involved in balance-focused exercise. In many cases, older adults will fall, get injured, and become less active—a chain of events that causes further balance deterioration and greater risk of suffering another fall in the future.. In turn, starting a new activity now will help prevent the debilitating results that can come with a balance-related injury later.
Visit your primary care physician before beginning a new exercise to discuss the planned regimen with someone who is an expert in your health and can advise you on a safe and beneficial routine. Be mindful that any balance-based exercise should be done in a group or with a partner for safety reasons. And, more importantly, make sure that whatever you’re doing, you’re having fun so that you’ll be more likely to stick with it!
About Hebrew SeniorLife Evidence-Based Programs and Exercise Initiatives
Hebrew SeniorLife offers evidence-based programming in more than 60 communities across Massachusetts, training more than 200 program leaders to adopt and implement successfully piloted healthy aging initiatives. Our community programming takes a comprehensive approach to keeping seniors vibrant and healthy by addressing a full spectrum of health-related concerns in older adults. In addition to our community-based programming, we also offer opportunities for older adults to maintain a healthy lifestyle through our Get Up & Go exercise program at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center/Boston and 100 Centre Street location of Center Communities of Brookline. Get Up & Go is a supervised, gym-based strength and endurance program for community-based seniors that focuses on improving balance and flexibility and strengthening cardiovascular fitness.
Learn more about our evidence-based programming
Learn more about the Senior Exercise Center at Hebrew SeniorLife