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Balance Exercises That Boost Stability—and Keep You Steady on Your Feet

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When you are young, you can walk confidently just about anywhere without much thought—such as on an uneven sidewalk—or while chatting at the same time. As you get older, just glancing sideways at a store window while strolling can make you wobble—and fall. Here’s what’s going on…and some moves that will keep you steadier on your feet…

WHY FALLS OCCUR

One in four Americans over age 65 falls each year. One reason is that older people are more prone to medical conditions that compromise balance—such as vertigo, dizziness, arthritis-related stiffness and weakness, stroke and loss of sensation in the feet from vascular diseases. But even without major health issues, normal physical and vision changes can affect balance.

Your eyes signal the brain where you are in space relative to other objects, which helps keep you stable. Wearing bifocals or progressive lenses requires your focus to change back and forth between lenses, making it harder to notice a loose rug, sidewalk crack or pet.

The natural age-related decline in muscle strength and flexibility also makes it harder to right yourself once your center of gravity is thrown off. That’s why the key to staying on your feet is to build your muscle strength and improve your flexibility and agility. Here’s how—work up to doing each move daily to get the most benefit…

FOOT TAPS

As we age, our pace typically slows, our step length shortens and our stance widens as shifting from one leg to the other feels less secure. To keep your strides long and confident and avert a shuffling gait, you can do foot taps—an exercise that trains your body to safely shift your center of gravity left and right.

How to do it: Stand in front of a step that is four-to-six-inches high (such as a footstool), feet hip-width apart. Slowly raise one foot to tap the step. Return that foot to the ground and then tap with the other foot. Movement should be slow and controlled. Work up to 20 taps for each foot in a session. As your stability improves, try a higher step (six-to-eight inches)…or try tapping the step as lightly as possible to further improve balance and increase muscle control.

Safety note: If needed, you can hold a railing or counter for support. If you use a cane for general walking assistance, hold it in the hand you usually use to hold it throughout the exercise, regardless of which foot you’re tapping. If you’re using a cane only while recovering from an injury or for a condition that affects your gait, such as arthritis, hold the cane on the side opposite to the injury or painful extremity.

HEAD TURNS

When you turn your head, a response called the vestibular spinal reflex (VSR) causes your brain to send messages to adjust postural muscles to keep you from being pulled in the direction your head turns. Your VSR can become less effective as you age, causing you to often stumble while turning your head. The following exercise helps train your VSR.

How to do it: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. If you need to, you can hold on to a railing, wall, sturdy piece of furniture or counter for support. Now slowly turn your head as far as you comfortably can to the right and then to the left, while maintaining upright posture. Repeat as a continuous movement for 10 repetitions.

Make sure to stay upright without leaning to one side. If you feel dizzy, pause, then continue at a slower pace.

For additional challenge: If you held on to a support, try doing the exercise without holding on to anything. Or try it with your feet only a few inches apart…or with your feet together…or with one foot in front of the other, heel-to-toe. Don’t overextend your ability, though—safety first!

OVER-THE-SHOULDER WALKS

Try this exercise once you feel comfortable with standing head turns. You will look left and right as you walk—similar to what you might do when scanning shelves while grocery shopping or walking down a hallway while searching for an apartment number.

How to do it: Stand at one end of a long hallway, feet hip-width apart. Turn your head to look over your right shoulder. Maintaining that gaze, take three or four steps forward. Now turn your head to look over your left shoulder while you continue to walk forward another three or four steps. Repeat for a total of five times per side. If you feel dizzy or unsteady, stop turning your head and gaze straight ahead for a few steps. To increase the challenge, increase how quickly you turn your head.

Variation: Try head turns in a store or library. Having a stationary visual target—the items on the shelves—recruits your vision while challenging your VSR.

BALL HANDOFF

People who worry about falling often are self-conscious about walking—which is counterproductive. The more attention you pay to how you’re walking, the more shuffled and fractured your gait becomes. Natural gait needs to be reflexive. This exercise uses a ball for distraction to help your gait become more fluid, increase your walking speed and improve your ability to shift weight left and right.

Safety note: This exercise is not recommended if you need to use a cane to walk.

How to do it: You’ll need a partner who is comfortable walking backward and a small ball, such as a tennis ball. Start at one end of a long hallway with your partner facing you and a few feet in front of you, holding the ball. Walk forward while your partner walks backward—handing off or gently tossing the ball back and forth to each other as you go. Perform this exercise for two to three minutes or until you feel tired.

Solo variation: Stand in front of a wall, and march in place while you toss the ball at the wall and catch it as it bounces back. Repeat for 30 seconds at a time, for a total of three times.

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Source: Caroline DeGroot, MPT, a physical therapist at AthletiCo Physical Therapy in Bannockburn, Illinois. ­DeGroot founded AthletiCo’s Vestibular Program, which focuses on helping people with dizziness, balance disorders and concussions. Date: May 1, 2018 Publication: Bottom Line Health
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