How to Prevent Falls by Improving Your Balance

Try the "stork" pose and these 4 other practices to improve your equilibrium.

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E is for equilibrium, otherwise known as balance, and it can help you prevent falls and stay active throughout your life. Want to improve your equilibrium now and make good balance a habit? Here's how, using these five easy exercises from our 10-week workout program:

Here's what you need to know about why and how to improve your equilibrium, adapted from Fitness After 40 by Vonda Wright, M.D.

Don't fall down. Easy advice to give, but in reality—in your 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond—it is not always easy to stay upright. Even if you have not fallen in years, it is likely that you will in the future. Did you know that after age 25, your balance begins to decline, and that after 65, 1 in 3 people will fall doing normal activities of daily living? Falls in the later years often result in wrist and hip fractures, which can have a devastating effect on your lifestyle or even threaten your life.

But falls can be prevented. A large analysis of balance studies found that muscle strengthening and balance retraining programs can decrease the risk of falls by 45 percent. In addition, studies show that people who practice the noncompetitive martial art of tai chi (which emphasizes gentle movements and stretching) have a significantly better sense of joint position and better reaction times than people of the same age who did not practice such balance-intense activities.

Test Yourself
1. Stand next to a firm surface such as a counter or chair back.
2. Hold your hands above the surface in case you need support.
3. Close your eyes and lift one foot off the ground.
4. Balance on the other foot.
5. Count out loud the number of seconds you are able to balance.

The shorter your balance time, the "older" your equilibrium is. If you balanced for more than 22 seconds, your balance is as young as a 20-year-old's; 15 seconds, you have the balance of a 30-year-old; 7.2 seconds, of a 40-year-old; 3.7 seconds, of a 50-year-old; and if you toppled over right away, you are 60 in "balance years."

If you are fit and strong, you can have better balance than much younger sedentary people. There are many ways you can boost your balance:

1. Stay strong. Strengthening your buttocks, quadriceps, and hamstrings goes a long way in improving balance.

2. Join a class. Tai chi, yoga, and pilates all require slow deliberate movements, trunk rotation, and one-legged stances.

3. Be productive in your down time. Between sets of strength exercises, while brushing your teeth in the morning, or while waiting at a street corner for the light to change, try standing on one leg and balancing.

4. Work balance exercises into your daily routine. You don't need any special equipment—just your body. For best results, do some or all of these exercises every day.

(Laura Petrilla Photography)

Stork
Stork
1. Stand with your feet slightly apart and raise one leg off the ground while keeping your arms to the sides and your shoulders relaxed (photo).
2. Try to balance for 30 seconds. Repeat two times, then switch legs. Try to work up to two minutes.
3. If you have difficulty balancing with no hands, try placing your fingertips or one fingertip on a hard surface until you are able to balance with no hands.
You can make this exercise more difficult by closing your eyes while you balance. Here are some other variations on the stork:
Once you have mastered standing still as a stork, try swinging your arms as if you are running in place.
When this is easy, hold water bottles or light weights in your hands and swing them.
To make the stork even more challenging, fold up a bath towel so that it is several inches thick, and do the stork while standing on it. Be careful not to cheat by gripping the floor or the towel with your toes.

Toe Raise
1. Stand with your shoulders over your hips, hips over your knees, knees over your ankles.
2. Focus your eyes on a spot on the ground 25 degrees in front of you.
3. While you stay focused on the spot, raise up onto your toes using the whole surface of your foot.
4. Lift the weight off your heels and ball of your foot onto our toes.
5. Move slowly and in a controlled way without jerking from side to side. Repeat 10 to 15 times.
6. If you need some support doing this exercise, stand behind a chair and use your fingertips to balance yourself.

Hip Flexors
1. Stand next to a sturdy surface like a chair. If you need to use your fingertips for balance, do so.
2. Raise one leg off the floor as if you are marching slowly, then lower it.
3. Do not bend forward at the waist (engage your core). Repeat 10 to 15 times on each leg.
4. Make this more difficult by removing your fingertips from the chair (if you are using it) and even more difficult by closing your eyes.

(Laura Petrilla Photography)

Side leg raise
Side Leg Raise
1. Stand next to a sturdy surface like a chair. If you need to use your fingertips for balance, do so.
2. Raise one leg off the floor to the side, and hold it 6 to 12 inches off the floor, then lower it (photo).
3. Do not bend forward at the waist (engage your core). Repeat 10 to 15 times per leg.
4. Make this more difficult by removing your fingertips from the chair (if you are using it) and even more difficult by closing your eyes.

Walk the Line
1. Choose a straight line in front of you like a tile floor and walk, one foot directly in front of the other, along it. Try this first with your arms extended out to the side for balance, and then with your arms at your sides.
2. Walk backward to the starting point, still along the straight line.
3. When this is easy, do it with your eyes closed.

Check out the rest of our 10-Week Workout, designed by Dr. Wright, including our sections on aerobic, load-carrying, and flexibility exercises.

Excerpted from FITNESS AFTER 40: How to Stay Strong at Any Age
by Vonda Wright, M.D., with Ruth Winter, M.S.
© 2009 Vonda Wright and Ruth Winter
Published by AMACOM Books
www.amacombooks.org