By Deborah Quilter
Most people assume that there is little that can be done for poor balance. This, happily, is not the case, even among the elderly.
For the past four years, I have taught a class to improve balance for senior citizens at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, and I see my students, who range from 69 to 96 years old, improve every week.
Poor balance can have many causes from taking too many medications to neurological problems (which should be brought to the attention of your doctor), but if yours is simply a matter of being out of shape, here are a few things you can do to improve matters.
1. Take care of your feet. One of the biggest obstacles to a smooth gait and good balance is inflexible, weak feet. To correct this, you can pick up pencils or marbles with your toes to strengthen the muscles in your feet. Other easy exercises are circling your ankles in both directions, and alternating pointing and flexing your feet to keep them mobile; do each 10 times a day if possible.
2. Lift your toes. Too often we fall into the habit of shuffling around. When you walk, if you don’t lift your toes, it’s easy to literally trip over your own feet.
3. Strengthen your “balance” muscles. Do a total body strengthening and stretching program that keeps you strong.
4. Stand on one foot. You can hold on to the back of a chair or stand near a wall if you feel unsteady. When you have held one side for a while, change legs and stand on the other foot. When you feel really steady, practice letting go of the support.
5. Go dancing. Take an easy dance class. It will help with your agility and coordination. And being involved in social activities is a great quality of life boost, too. Many dance studios, senior centers and recreational facilities offer dance classes specifically for seniors, but you needn’t feel limited to those offerings.
6. Be regular about your program. Practicing balance every day yields results. Doing things sporadically is not as beneficial. The more you practice—and the more regularly you practice—the better your balance will be. Like everything else in life, you need to make time for what’s really important. Devoting a few minutes every day to better balance, and in turn reducing the risk of falling, is more than worth it for your well-being today and for years to come.
Deborah Quilter is a movement educator who specializes in designing exercise programs that help people overcome injuries without strain. She founded the Balance Project: a senior Yoga class at the Martha Stewart Center for Living at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, and has made a DVD of the seated Yoga routine she teaches there. She is the author of The Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book and Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer User's Guide and can be reached through her website, RSIhelp.com.