Balance is a vital skill that fades with age but can be enhanced with exercises

August 15, 2011

Like any good, self-respecting working parent in Washington, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about balance — that is, how to juggle the opposing forces of my family and my job, although there’s also evening out the checkbook. But how often do most of us stop to consider balance as in the state of bodily equilibrium?

Probably not enough: “Balance is a major issue as you age,” says Dennis Fitzgerald, director of otology and neurotology at Washington Hospital Center. “It’s something that many of us take for granted, but the fact is that if you don’t have good balance, you can’t perform many of the activities we’re all so used to doing while moving through our daily lives,” such as walking in a straight line, getting up from a chair, climbing stairs and exercising.

So how does a healthy body, quite literally, stay grounded? Fitzgerald explains that your brain, muscles and bones work together to process sensory information from three main components: vision, the inner ear and receptors all over the body, especially the feet and ankles. “The body needs to know where we are in space, to be able to then react and perform the functions we want and need to perform,” he says.

Generally speaking, balance peaks in your 20s and then starts to slowly go downhill in your 30s, with a sharp decline in the 60s and beyond, although that can vary based on fitness, weight and other factors, says J.R. Rudzki, an orthopedic surgeon in Washington who specializes in sports medicine. He notes that the normal, gradual loss of equilibrium as you get older tends to correlate with weakening vision and inner-ear function as well as diminishing activity level and muscle strength. Other risk factors include certain neurological diseases and conditions, some medications, obesity and arthritis. And I think any mom will attest that there’s nothing like pregnancy — and having to adjust to an extra 20, 30 or, um, 50 pounds — to wreak havoc on your balance.

Overall, about 8 million Americans experience chronic balance problems, according to the National Institutes of Health; the number of people with lesser, occasional or temporary issues is probably far, far greater.

The effects of this equilibrium crisis are wide-ranging. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in three adults 65 and older takes a spill every year, with 20 to 30 percent of those incidents resulting in moderate to severe injuries, including lacerations, hip fractures and head trauma.

An active commitment to bettering your balance — right alongside cardiovascular fitness, strength training and flexibility — can go a long way toward prevention of such injuries as well as better health and wellness in general. “There is a fair amount of research showing that . . . exercises that address stability and balance can be quite helpful, minimizing the risk of fall and injury and leading to fairly significant improvements in quality of life as we get older,” says Rudzki.

And even the surest, steadiest whippersnappers should note that several recent studies have found that balance training helps lower the risk of ankle sprains and other sports-related injuries in otherwise healthy, active young people.

“It’s never too early — or too late — to start,” says Jean Gutierrez, an assistant professor of exercise science at George Washington University.

Luckily, there are a lot of options for enhancing your equilibrium, both in and out of the gym. Gutierrez says the key is to focus on core stability and building muscle strength in the low body.

To start, she suggests yoga, Pilates and specialized equipment such as Bosu balls and balance boards. Tai chi is another good, research-backed option; this spring, a review article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that the ancient Chinese martial art, which combines deep breathing and gentle movements, helps improve balance and prevent falls in older people.

The exercises listed here sound straightforward enough, right? Well, I’ve been giving these drills a go every now and then, and they’re not as easy as they sound. But I’m definitely making progress and, I must say, I feel better just knowing that even if I haven’t managed to find exactly the right balance between my work and family commitments yet, at least I’m actually standing on slightly firmer ground.

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