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Stability, Balance and Age

Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA and Alexandra Williams. MA

Dear Fun and Fit: Why is it that our balance can get worse as we age? Is there anything I can do to prevent this or at least slow the process down?

Jan, Los Angeles, CA

Keep your balance

Life is a Balancing Act

Alexandra: Wow. Yes. And Sure. Other than that, buckle your seat belt as things may get technical (meaning I’m about to use some very long words). In order to have balance, you rely on information from your body in space and the environment. There are 3 systems that provide this information; I call them See Me, Feel Me, Hear Me:

  • Visual (the most heavily used) – You notice where you are in relation to the terrain and anticipate and adjust accordingly.
Arm yourself with good vision

Armed with Good Eyesight

  • Somatosensory (the feely-meely one) – Let’s say it’s dark; your proprioceptors that are within the joints, muscles, and inner ear give you info about your body’s movement relative to its base of support and the various body parts.
Feel your way through life

Feelings, shmeelings - Damn You, Somatosensory System

  • Vestibular (drinking alcohol really messes with this one) – The inner ear is connected to the head, is connected to the other two systems, is connected to you staying upright! (are you singing the song yet?)
Vestibular system & inner ear & vertigo

Faulty Vestibular System = Vertigo Aaaaaaahhh

If any of these 3 systems give data to the Central Nervous System that are pfffffffftttt, your response will be also pffffffffftttt. Bad data in; bad data out. So if you have weakening eyes, inner ear issues or simply need to improve your strength and endurance, you could be out of balance!

Kymberly: Another reason balance becomes tricky with inactivity has to do with stride length (notice how I am distinguishing between the real culprit, “decreasing activity” and the red herring, “amassed years on the planet”). As people accumulate years of insufficient strength or aerobic activity, they start shortening their gait, taking smaller and smaller steps. Think about it. Every step we take involves a moment of balancing on one leg as the other swings through. As people become less confident or capable, they do what it takes to minimize time on one leg, ie taking shorter strides.  So their base of support gets narrower and narrower. Much easier to tip a narrow base than a wide one. Thus begins the dizzying downward cycle of worsening balance.

A: I edited an interesting article by Evan Osar, DC a few years ago, and he strongly suggests looking at foot, ankle and hip issues, therefore I strongly suggest you read it! I was thinking to make a nice list of all the exercise tools that have the words “balance” or “stability” in them, but was seized by lethargy and decided to give you access to this lovely brochure by the American College of Sports Medicine instead. Guess what it’s about? Balance Training! After your balance training (which you get to do every day–yes, you heard me correctly!), do your resistance training several days a week; (that’ll do).

K: Add to what’s her A’s advice my blah blah of balance, which is to take walks– they can be slow ones–wherein you exaggerate your stride length. Get back into the habit of a bold, daring, aggressive stride. You’ll get your balance juju back!  Walk enough that when Alexandra sings you can neither see her, hear her, nor feel her. Ya’ feel me?

Dear Readers: Are you ever imbalanced or unbalanced? Can you spell somatosensory with your eyes closed?

Photo credits: Creative Commons

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