How to Maintain Your Balance (Literally) as You Get Older

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Feeling wobbly? You’re not alone. Loss of balance isn’t just for old people anymore, according to a study from the Journals of Gerentology. The two-year survey of mobility, strength, endurance, and balance showed the expected results of steady declines in our abilities as we age — but the decline in balance begins much earlier than one would hope, as early as our 40s.

Staying upright and steady involves a number of interacting systems, including our vision, the vestibular system in the inner ear, our proprioception capabilities, muscle strength, joint flexibility, and reaction time. Throw any one of these things off, or slow it down just a bit, and our ability to stay balanced gets … well, knocked out of balance.

We compensate by moving more slowly, relying more on handrails or canes, or becoming less and less adventurous in our daily activities.

It’s not just getting older that causes the problem. There are other contributing factors, including lack of exercise, alcohol, obesity, nerve damage, certain drugs or drug combinations, and a variety of medical conditions.

By the time we hit age 65, one in three people falls at least once a year, with 10–15% of these falls resulting in serious injury.

If you want to test your balance, try this right now: Stand on one foot for a full minute.

Can you do it? Maybe you can, maybe you can’t. The average person in their 50s can do it for 45 seconds. In their 60s, it drops to 40 seconds, and by their 70s it’s down to 27 seconds.

But however stable you are today, experts advise that it’s a good idea to start a regular program of balance exercises now to keep yourself upright well into the future. They’re pretty easy to do without a lot of effort, and they don’t take much time. Be sure to keep a record of what you can do now so you can compare it with your future progress. Your goal is to be one of those 70, 80, or 90 year olds who doesn’t fall down!

  • Sit-to-Stand: Sit in a chair with feet hip-width apart and knees at 90 degrees. Stand without using your hands to help yourself up. Sit and repeat 10 times.
  • Single Leg Balance: While standing, lift one leg off the floor and balance for 10 to 15 seconds, then repeat on your other leg. Do this 10 times.
  • Lift-Off: Stand with you feet together and your arms at your sides. Slowly lean forward while raising one leg straight out behind you, moving your arms out to your sides with your head facing forward. Hold this pose for a count of five or more, then return to the starting position and repeat on the opposite side.
  • Heel-Toe Walk: Walk in a straight line, putting the heel of one foot directly in front of the toes of the other while looking straight ahead.
  • Heel Rises: While standing, rise up on your toes as far as you can. Lower, then rise again. Repeat 10 to 20 times.

These exercises may seem like a challenge or they may seem almost too easy. If your’e looking for something either a little more challenging or a lot less boring, consider a yoga or tai chi class. These are great for maintaining or regaining balance, strength, and flexibility, and they’re an appropriate exercise no matter what your age.