Standing on your feet Exercise for stability and reflex
Given an opportunity to write a longer article this week, I must admit, as I pondered this rather daunting task, my self-confidence waivered a bit. Just in the nick of time, like a dream, the words of my clients-past whispered in my ear, “We’re afraid (of falling) … we have lost some of our (physical) confidence … is there still hope for us (to get stronger)? … please help …”
Suddenly, I knew what to write about … something that will be an issue for all of us – balance. You see, I haven’t written a lengthy article in a very long time and, consequently, I lost some of my confidence … just like my new clients who have spent many years somewhat inactive. They too have lost some of their confidence and their abilities.
Did you know that one in three people 65 years or older fall each year? And that falls are a leading cause of injury and death in the same age group? It’s a good reason to listen up and get busy – regardless of your age!
Several systems affect our balance and help to prevent falls – some can be improved and some cannot. Although neurological disorders, prescription medications, hearing and vision loss can all effect balance, I don’t want to focus on those today because it is often difficult, if not impossible to control those issues.
What we can control (somewhat) is our strength, flexibility, proprioception (a big word meaning awareness of where our body is in space,) and reflexes. Often, as we age and begin to loose our sense of balance, we to try to eliminate all risk. And while minimizing risk is an important part of the solution, training our bodies is just as important.
Looking back to my childhood, I spent all my time running as fast as I could, tightrope walking on any ledge I could find, playing every kind of ball game imaginable (including dodge ball), spinning around in circles for no good reason, and climbing trees, fences and all things high enough to hurt me if I fell off. I was fearless and confident in my body’s ability to do what I asked of it. And rightly so. I “practiced” all the time! My guess is you did too.
At the University of Michigan, in a 10-week study of 162 people age 65 and older, a program of stepping (higher knees, longer strides, directional changes) and functional strengthening was actually more effective than Tai Chi.
For more details on this study, go to http://www.physorg.com/news85060802.html.
The moral to the story is not to avoid Tai Chi, a wonderful art to practice, but to be certain to include the exercises that will give you the results you want. This is called exercise specificity.
Remember to start with simple movements on stable surfaces.
Some of the specific skills to target are gait training, core strengthening to improve posture, leg strength and foot and hip stability which can translate to better reflexes and security in your physical ability to react.
Some exercises can be performed initially while sitting in a chair if necessary or standing up behind the chair using the back for balance. You could also use a deck rail or a wall for balance. Alternating leg extensions, static heel raises (together and alternating,) head turns (this challenges the vestibular apparatus, a small organ in our inner ear that assists with proprioception) and closing your eyes. Also, cross body movements are great for our brain – try bringing your opposite elbow to your knee.
Remember, the key is to create a challenge with absolutely no risk. Once you can perform each set of exercises with proper breathing (not shallow) and little effort (not with a death grip on the chair), feel free to move to the next level. This may take days, weeks or even months.
Start playing with standing on one leg. Initially, keep your foot just slightly off the floor and don’t let your hip “release” Ð keep your core strong. Make sure to spend time on both sides and progress to moving your foot further from the floor. After you have mastered this, with a wall, chair or rail in hand and while standing on one leg, try closing your eyes. Then open your eyes and try turning your head. Never move to the next level of challenge without making your environment safe.
As we get older, we tend to look down and shuffle our feet, and this actually increases our risk of falling. So, as you go through your day, begin to increase your awareness of how you walk. Is your core tight and are you pulling your shoulders together and down in back? Is your head up and are you stepping high and long with confidence? Don’t shuffle along with your head down and your shoulders and back rounded.
Next, you may want to add some wobble boards, half foam rollers and dense foam pads for more challenge and variety. This moves you from a totally stable surface (the floor) to an unstable surface. Most of these exercises can be performed on your own, but you may want to have another person to use for balance as you progress.
Stability balls and BOSU’s are a great addition to balance training. They create unrivaled challenge and variety to any exercise program. Core strength, foot stability, leg strength and proprioception can all be improved with these tools.
It’s probably time to add more strength and whole body movements to your program at this point. Lunges in a variety of directions and multi-plane exercises performed on an unstable surface will create a good challenge.
Unless you have lots of exercise experience, you may want to call in the professionals.
Make sure you choose a certified personal trainer with the experience and qualifications to work with your unique needs. There also is myriad equipment choices available at our local fitness facilities that can accelerate your training.
At Real Life Fitness, we have an incredible piece called the Power Plate – it is whole body vibration and it’s amazing for balance training.
Some people say “use it or lose it.” And while that is true, it is never too late to improve it!
Get started today and your balance will be better next week.
Scott Jackson, CSCS, MES, is the owner of Scott Jackson’s Real Life Fitness Personal Training Studio in Nevada City and is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, a Medical Exercise Specialist and an IDEA Master Trainer. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, call 265-4041 or visit http://www.reallifefitness.net
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