One of the biggest quality-of-life issues for those 50 and over is balance. It’s something that requires exercise, just as building muscle and flexible joints do.
It’s vital to keep working on your sense of balance as you get older, because falls become more common and more dangerous. Falling is one of the leading causes of disability and even death in seniors. The three Bs — Building Better Balance — can be done anywhere. You don’t need to go to a gym.
One good balance exercise to start with is curb-line walking. Nearly all sidewalks have a narrow curb next to the street. It may be a different color from the concrete sidewalk, or marked by nothing more than a line, but walking along it is great balance practice. The curb is flush with the sidewalk, so stepping outside the line isn’t a big deal. You may make a lot of missteps at first, but as you keep practicing, sure-footedness improves.
Take it to a higher level by working on being able to stand on one foot without going into “sewing machine” mode, where your foot quivers while trying to find a balance point. Start by standing next to a wall, which you can touch for support if necessary. Let your knees relax so your leg isn’t stiff. Stand on one foot, then the other. Your balance will be better on one leg, so give extra training to the weaker leg.
When you can stand on each foot for 30 to 45 seconds, start using functional balance to improve your life. Put on socks and slacks while standing up, not sitting down. Be ready to touch a wall or dresser to reset if you get off balance.
Another exercise can safely teach you balance for managing the mass of your upper body. While sitting down, drop a napkin or paper towel on the floor. Slowly, while making sure of your balance, bend over to pick it up. People with poor balance may have to work on this exercise to be able to effortlessly touch the floor without gasping. Keep practicing, and it will quickly get easier.
An important area to practice balance is on stairs. If you need to tightly grip a railing to climb up or down a set of stairs, then you don’t have proper balance, and that’s a risky situation. Work on being able to handle a set of stairs without holding on. Allow your hand to hover over the railing, ready to grab instantly if necessary. Meanwhile, step slowly up or down, learning your balance point with each shift of weight.
For more advanced balance work, do one-legged partial squats. Use a hand to balance yourself as you practice this exercise. With one hand resting lightly on a sturdy piece of furniture like a desk or couch arm, lift one foot behind you and slowly bend your standing leg at the knee, hip and ankle. You may have to lift your heel at first, until the muscles and tendons stretch out in your calf.
The gradual (and gentle) stretching of the calf is also an excellent way to prevent another type of disabling injury — a tear of the Achilles tendon. The older you are, the more difficult such an injury is to surgically repair.
But no matter how long you live, good balance and flexible Achilles tendons will make your entire life better.