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How Balancing Your Body Could Lead to a More Balanced Life

5 steps to help avoid injuries from falling.

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I was just finishing up my annual physical when I asked my doctor if he had any final tips about healthy aging. “My best advice is simple: don’t fall,” he said. I’m not sure what I was expecting, perhaps some special supplement or particular nutritional program, but it turns out my doctor’s advice is not so simple after all. In fact, it’s downright crucial.

According to a report by the Center for Disease Control more than 1 out of 4 people over 65 fall each year and “falls are the leading cause of both fatal and non-fatal injuries among older adults.” Plus, falling once doubles your chances of falling again. The potential risks range from sprained ankles to head injuries. Even a single tumble can have long-lasting effects on your health, mobility and quality of life. In other words, maintaining physical balance is important for an overall balanced life.  

For women, the risks can be even greater. “Falls in patients with osteoporosis are particularly worrisome as they can lead to fractures,” says Elizabeth A. Coon, M.D., associate professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Whether a fall is caused by stepping off a curb the wrong way, slipping on a rug (don’t get me started on scatter rugs) or standing up too quickly, chances are you land on the floor or ground from a loss of balance. While some diminished balance is natural as we age, it’s not inevitable.

Building up your strength and stability not only helps prevent falls but may help you get up if you do lose your balance. One influential study cited by the National Institutes of Health showed that balance can be improved in just six weeks with a few basic home exercises. Adding these to your days can potentially have such a positive impact on your quality of life and lifespan that it’s a worthwhile commitment to make as we age.

Step 1: Pre-check

Before you get started, it’s important to identify any health issues that might contribute to your loss of balance. “Underlying medical conditions that increase your risk of falling include high blood pressure, diabetes and vision loss, which can make it more likely that you trip over a throw rug or your dog’s toy,” says Elizabeth Joy, M.D., the senior medical director, wellness and nutrition, at the University of Utah School of Medicine. “Certain medications for those and other conditions, including mood disorders, may increase light-headedness that can lead to falls as well.”

As with any medication, talk to your doctor about your personal health status before embarking on an exercise program. If your balance is thrown off within seconds, that could be an urgent neurologic problem, like a stroke, which, of course, requires emergency attention.

Even lesser, sudden balance issues demand medical attention. “Aging and lifestyle changes tend to occur gradually over time, so if there is a more abrupt change, you should be seen by your physician,” says Coon, who stresses that beyond more serious problems, the biggest cause of loss of balance remains inactivity. “Keeping up physical activity and building strength in the legs and core is an excellent way to maintain balance.” Exercise will balance your life in other ways as well. Not only can it boost feel-good endorphins, but if you do it with friends, the social aspect can improve your well-being and sense of joyful connection.

Step 2: The 30-second test

The first step is to test how good (or not so good) your balance actually is. Joy recommends standing on one foot for 30 seconds, then switching feet. “When you are first starting out, do it next to the kitchen counter where you can rest your hands if needed,” she says. Use this as your benchmark to assess your progress.

Step 3: Get moving

This can include brisk walking, which can help strengthen your legs while improving your overall health. “Strength-training is also a big part of healthy aging and is especially important for women who tend to lose muscle mass during menopause,” says Joy, who recommends meeting or exceeding the current guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity every week.

You don’t need fancy equipment at the gym to get started. To strengthen legs, Joy suggests practicing squats by standing up from a seated position in a chair and repeating the move for 30 seconds. When you are comfortable with that, build up to one minute. Once you feel secure, try doing the squats without actually sitting down on the chair (but keep it near, just in case.)

To build up core strength, which helps with stability, Joy recommends the plank instead of “crunches or sit-ups, which might hurt somebody with an arthritic neck.”

Start by lying on your stomach on a mat or firm surface, resting your forearms beneath your shoulders. Then raise your torso from your knees in a straight line, holding the position for 10 to 20 seconds. To reduce strain on your lower back, make sure not to arch. As your core gets stronger, increase the time you hold the plank.

Step 4: Roll it out

Anthony Wall, a fitness expert with the American Council on Exercise, also stresses the importance of flexibility in maintaining balance. Along with squats, he recommends side lunges — simply stepping to the side with one leg while the other remains still. “In real life, we have a range of motions we go through, so it’s important to practice moving from various angles,” says Hall, who suggests that using a foam roller is another way to keep muscles loose. (And hey, it feels good.)

Step 5: Voila!

After a few weeks of doing some chair-sits, planks and lunges, try the 30-second one-legged balance test at the kitchen counter again. (Oh, and while you’re in the kitchen, snack on a can of sardines. They’re super high in good-for-your-bones calcium, which is important, fall or no fall. Consider it your bonus tip.) Voila, you are on your way to a more balanced life.

Have you ever taken a bad fall? Let us know in the comments below.

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