As you age, it’s not uncommon to experience some loss of agility or to find that you are not as graceful as you may have previously thought. Balance issues are a common problem for seniors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that every 13 seconds an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall.
While many individuals are quick to blame these balance issues on deteriorating joint health or changes in posture, they’re not the only factors at play. Reduced hearing and vision can also impact your fall risk.
“Balance issues can affect a majority of seniors, and they range in severity. Some people say that it does not affect their life as much as it affects others,” explains Amy Spiegel, physical therapist at Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital. “One of the best things that you can do is to take charge of the physical and environmental factors that could be negatively impacting your balance.”
Environmental changes for better balance
Everyone can slip and fall on a stray rug, trip over a small step or raised nail, or take a dive on a slippery surface. When environmental hazards happen to an older population, they’re more likely to cause long-lasting injuries.
Prevent injuries like these by addressing potential fall risks in your home, including:
- Installing bright indoor and outdoor lights in high-traffic areas, and sensor lights in the driveway or outside walkway
- Carry a flashlight with you if you are walking after dark
- Making sure there are clear pathways indoors by removing clutter and moving furniture towards the walls and out of walkways
- Removing throw rugs and securing carpet runners with non-skid tape
- Installing banisters and handrails on stairs and grab bars in the shower
- Placing a non-skid mat on the bottom of tubs or showers
As many falls occur in the home, it’s important to take steps like these to prep your area to prevent them.
Physical changes for better balance
In addition to making changes to your home, there are also steps that you can take that will benefit your physical health and, in turn, your balance.
“Exercise is one of the best things that you can do for your body, and that includes your balance,” says Spiegel. “Individuals who exercise daily can experience benefits including improved leg strength, improved endurance, and reduced muscle atrophy.”
Before you begin any workout routine, it’s important to check with your health care provider to get medical clearance. If it’s your first time exercising in a few years, or you require an adapted exercise program, your health care provider may recommend a physical therapist to help you develop a routine.
Below, Spiegel offers a few sample exercises that can help get your blood pumping and improve your balance.
Hamstring stretch: Use the steps in your home for this exercise. Place one foot a step and hold the railing. Lean forward gently. You should feel a stretch in the back of your thigh. Hold this stretch for 30 seconds, breathing in and out. Repeat three times on each leg. Repeat daily.
Calf stretch: Place your hands on the wall, palms flat and open. Place one foot behind you, keeping your heel on the floor. Lean in toward the wall, holding for 30 seconds. Breathe in and out. Repeat three times on each leg. Repeat daily.
Leg raises: Stand straight, with your legs together. Hold onto a counter or piece of furniture. While keeping your knee straight, kick your leg slowly to the front. Bring it back to the center. Repeat, but kick it to the side. Bring it back to the center. Repeat, but kick behind you. Repeat all three directions 20 times on each leg. Repeat daily.
Single limb stance: Stand near the chair or inside of a doorway. Let your hands hang next to you, but keep them close to the wall or furniture. Lift the left leg, and balance on your right leg for 10 seconds. Switch and do this on the other leg. Repeat five times on each leg. Repeat daily.
If you’re concerned about poor balance and your fall risk, there are a variety of options available to help take control.
“I encourage patients to take advantage of balance assessments offered by physical therapists, and the resources available in their communities,” says Spiegel. “Senior centers, libraries, hospitals, health centers, and insurance companies usually offer fitness memberships and classes at reduced rates for seniors. It’s never too late to start taking charge of your health.”
Do you have concerns about falling? Main Line Health offers Matter of Balance, an award-winning program designed to manage falls and increase activity levels. Visit our website to register for an upcoming class or learn more.