When I was much younger, one of the sports I competed in was weightlifting. In a powerlifting competition, you try to lift as much weight as you can move in three lifts: a bench press, a squat, and a deadlift. The problem: they have to be done in the right way.
I completely fell in love with this new sport that has just opened up for women. Training with all my male teammates at Black’s Health World in Cleveland, Ohio helped me get stronger. I got to a point where I could bench press more than my bodyweight, squat almost 300lbs on my shoulders, and lift close to 400lbs off the floor for a deadlift. It was intoxicating.
To be honest, I felt this “high weightlifting power” for decades. Until one day, I was cleaning the gutters in my house, which I had done many times before, and it suddenly crossed my mind, “what if I lose my balance and fall?” At that very moment, fear washed over him. My confidence was gone, my independence was threatened, and I felt vulnerable.
That feeling and the realization that everything from then on was going to be different became my motivation. It set me on the path of learning as much as I could to prevent the seniors I work with, and myself, from letting a fall completely change their lives.
Why balance is an issue as we age
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 25 percent of adults over the age of 65 fall every day. One in five falls will cause serious injuries, such as head trauma or broken bones. Those numbers don’t sound big until you realize they equate to 3 million older adults (in 2019) receiving treatment at emergency centers for falls.
Most falls will occur due to a slip or trip at ground level. The most common hazards are slippery and uneven surfaces, clutter, poorly spaced furniture, loose rugs, or wearing ill-fitting shoes or clothing. These situations are even more dangerous if balance is affected by a chronic disease, such as Parkinson’s, medications that cause dizziness, blood pressure fluctuations, hearing loss, vision problems, alcohol use, obesity, or muscle weakness caused due to physical inactivity.
Why strengthening your core improves balance
Although we hear the word “core” a lot, most people don’t realize that it actually refers to the muscles around our torso. It is these muscles that move, support and stabilize the spine, back, buttocks, hips and stomach. These core muscles are crucial to good posture. Weak core muscles lead to poor posture, which then negatively affects balance. In fact, the two are so interrelated that posture has been said to be one of the most visually perceptible indicators of general muscle weakness.
When core muscles weaken due to physical inactivity, a cycle is perpetuated. You may have noticed these things happening to you or a loved one:
- Muscle and strength begin to decline due to aging and/or physical inactivity.
- As the core muscles weaken, they are not strong enough to resist gravity, so they begin to sag.
- The torso sinks and the shoulders begin to roll forward, pulling on the spine and creating a hump.
- In an effort to compensate for the sag of the torso, the front of the hips begin to drop, increasing curvature and pressure on the lower back.
- The head and neck move forward, tensing the muscles of the upper back and neck.
- These misalignments shift the body’s center of gravity so that it is too far forward.
Now, the slightest trip or slip can cause you to collapse. And since the muscles and bones are not strong enough to withstand the impact, serious injuries are likely. Therefore, to improve balance, we must strengthen the core muscles and return the posture to a more neutral position.
Pay attention to your proprioceptors!
The other thing we start to “lose” with physical inactivity is our proprioceptors. These are the sensory receptors in our nervous system that give the brain information about where our body is in space. They are mainly found in muscles, tendons, joint capsules and the inner ear. It’s a constant feedback loop between the brain and the nervous system that responds to things like touch, pressure, and vibration.
Walking on different surfaces is a great example of how our proprioceptors respond. The constant feedback loop between the brain and nervous system allows us to walk without having to consciously tell our brain when it’s time to pick up another foot. And when the surface changes under our feet, say from concrete to grass, we recognize the change even though we’re wearing shoes.
Since proprioceptors are part of the system that tells us when a muscle is contracted or stretched, or when a joint is bent or straightened, if we don’t move regularly, those nerve endings begin to lose their sensitivity. When that starts to happen, we start to feel unsteady and have balance problems.
If you really want to protect yourself from a fall, you’ll need to move more, not less. The first step, however, is to improve your posture.
- Start by standing sideways to a mirror, feet hip-width apart.
- Raise your torso as you breathe deeply. This expands your lungs and helps lift your torso.
- As your torso rises, tighten your lower abs and tighten your gluteal muscles. This should help shift your hips so they are more level.
- Pull your shoulder blades down to return your rolled shoulders to a more neutral position.
- Align your ears over your shoulders by moving your head and neck back.
Another benefit of good posture is pain relief. Better posture takes pressure off your spine and joints, which helps relieve pain. And I can’t finish without saying that the best way to look at least 5 years younger is by improving your posture.
How to improve balance: pro tips
Practice good posture throughout the day. While waiting in line, washing dishes, preparing a meal, shopping, even while sitting or driving. My favorite time to practice the pose is while walking.
For those who feel especially off balance while walking, I suggest a set of Activator walking poles from UrbanPoling.com. I recommend them to my older clients, and I have no affiliation or commission agreement with the manufacturer, because the poles are specially designed to improve core strength, balance, and gait. I even bought a set for my 94 year old dad who takes a 30 minute walk almost every day.
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