Why is it important to challenge our balance and how can we improve our balance?
The answer is in the question – we need to challenge our balance in order to improve it!
Balance is a vital skill. It may sound a little dramatic, but it could save your life!
30% of people aged 65 and over will fall at least once a year. This statistic rises to 50% in those aged 80+ and 5% of falls lead to fracture and hospitalisation. Those suffering a hip fracture after falling face an increased one-year mortality rate of between 18-33% (gov.uk).
Conditions such as osteoporosis increase the risk of a fracture and women are considered to be more at risk of osteoporosis due to the decline of oestrogen during menopause, leading to a reduction in calcium cells within the bone tissue. Many older women will have weaker bones (osteopaenia) without realising it. If a person has previously fallen, or if they know they have weak bones which could lead to fractures, they can develop a fear of falling. This fear in itself adds to the problem, as it can prevent them from taking part in exercise, accelerating the effects of osteoporosis, or causing their balance to decline further. Obviously this can make further falls even more likely.
Improving your balance is one of the best ways to prevent falls and fractures in later life, alongside functional fitness and resistance training to maintain bone and muscle mass. I’m not talking about lifting heavy weights here, but having the strength and stability to ‘catch’ yourself and pull yourself back up to standing if you trip or lose your balance is really important. Obviously the earlier you begin to include resistance training in your exercise routine, the better, to reduce the loss of bone mass and muscle mass – it is not just something for ‘older’ adults to be concerned with. It’s certainly a case of ‘use it or lose it’.
Creating a degree of instability within the body (for example, standing on one leg), is one way to challenge (and ultimately improve) balance. Taking this further, covering one eye with your hand, or closing both eyes while standing on one leg, can challenge your balance further and improve proprioception (sort of like a sixth sense) to visualise the position of your body within the space. However, if you are new to balance exercises, please don’t suddenly decide to stand on one leg and close your eyes, as there are other factors to think about too! You need to be in a clutter-free space, with the right footwear (ideally barefoot, so that you can feel the ground underneath you), possibly have a chair or something in front of you to grab hold of if you do lose your balance, and ideally have someone else nearby to keep an eye on you, especially if yours are shut! It’s also important to engage the core muscles in order to stay upright. There are a few really simple balances exercises for you to try at home on the NHS website.
How to make it easier to balance
I say this all the time, but the only way to improve balance – is to balance more!
You can certainly start small, holding onto a chair while you stand on one leg or rise up onto your toes. If you find it difficult to balance on one leg, start by just gently placing the toes of the other foot on the ground, without adding any weight, strengthening the supporting leg. However, ultimately we all want to be able to improve our balance so that we can catch ourselves if we fall – and there won’t always be a chair to grab hold of.
There are a few things we can do to make balancing easier – without holding onto a chair or other static/fixed object. Holding a resistance band, some very light hand weights, bottles of water, or just clenching your fists to create a little tension can help you to stabilise yourself. It’s not cheating – you’re not using these objects to hold you upright, you’re just tricking your body into thinking they are! You can also create tension in other areas, engaging the core muscles will help you to stabilise yourself.
In addition, increasing sensory input can help make balancing easier. By wearing minimal footwear (preferably bare feet or grippy yoga socks), you’ll have a better connection with the ground and your feet will be in a better position to balance than in bulky footwear such as trainers. With bare feet (or non-slip socks), you’ll be able to spread out your toes, creating more surface area, and push them down into the floor, making the ideal base for balancing upon. It may sound strange, but similarly, increasing sensory stimulation through the hands can also help you balance. Again, just clenching the fists or clasping the hands together may be helpful, or holding an object in the hands, particularly something textured (for example a spiky massage ball) can really help.
Focusing on one point in front of you can also help you to stabilise yourself. Like when a dancer spins, they ‘spot’, fixing their eyes on a particular object or part of the room in order to help keep themselves upright.
Of course, it’s also important to take care of your feet, after all, they are your base for balancing upon! Strengthening and mobility exercises, along with minimal (‘barefoot’) footwear whenever possible will help to strengthen that base.
Which fitness classes can help with balance?
Generally, the more physically active you are, the more likely you are to have fairly decent balance, so the most important part is to keep moving, in whatever form that may be. I do try to sneak in a fair bit of balance training to all classes, particularly with the FitSteps TONE routines and DanceFit: Flow, and brand new for 2022, DanceFit: Balance is centred around balance, strength, stability and functional flexibility. For part of this class we use very lightweight fabric bands, adding a small amount of resistance to strengthen the muscles, while giving participants something to hold on to while challenging their balance. Think of it like a barre fitness section, but we’re swapping the static barre for something more flexible, helping to create slight instability to challenge, and ultimately improve, balance. DanceFit: Balance currently runs in Colden Common on Thursdays and is taught by a fully qualified fitness professional with a specialism in healthy ageing and balance training certifications. If this sounds like the sort of class you’d like to try, please see further details here.