In this article we are going to show you the importance of exercises that promote balance in seniors. The article is broken down into three sections:
- The Importance of Exercise as We Age
- Benefits of Balance Exercises
- Balance Exercises for Seniors (with links to relevant videos)
The ability to balance when we stand and when we walk is a complex skill that many people take for granted. Usually, balancing is something that people do without conscious thought. They use balance to navigate their environment without having to exert effort or think about it.
But for others, particularly senior citizens, balance is a struggle. Some senior citizens experience dizziness or weakness that causes imbalance while others suffer from diseases like Parkinson’s Disease or Lewy Body Disorder that can cause postural issues that lead to imbalance.
No matter what the cause, imbalance can lead to serious falls and injuries. To avoid this problem, most senior citizens can benefit from doing special exercises to build and maintain good balance.
Recent studies have shown that balance-exercises not only reduce the odds that a senior citizen will fall, but these exercises also help seniors fall gracefully in a way that helps them prevent serious injury.
According to research, specialized balance-focused exercise programs reduced the number of falls that resulted in minor injury by 37% and they reduced the number of falls leading to serious injury by 43%. Approximately 61% of seniors who experienced a fall after doing balance-exercises were able to avoid breaking a bone as a result of the accident.
There are a number of different types of balance-related exercises that are appropriate for senior citizens. The type of exercise depends on the health of the individual including their strength, stamina, and flexibility.
Tai chi and gentle yoga exercises are popular for many senior citizens who are moderately healthy and active though there are a number of simple at-home exercises that require little to no training or guidance to perform as well.
Imbalance and Injury
When a young child or even a young adult falls, there are usually very few consequences, but when a senior citizen falls, the story is often different. Older individuals who fall may experience broken bones that can lead to a downward spiral health-wise.
A broken hip can turn into a death sentence for an older individual who is already suffering from diabetes, osteoporosis, or other chronic degenerative diseases. Worse yet are head injuries or falls that shake the elder’s confidence thereby undermining their independence and personal sense of volition.
Imbalance goes along with injury for older individuals, but building balance through structured exercise can help prevent falls altogether or at least prevent falls that lead to broken bones or serious injury.
Though specific balance-related exercises are ideal for seniors who wish to prevent injury, just about any exercise that builds strength, flexibility, or endurance will also build balance. Finding an exercise program that not only stimulates the development of enhanced balance, but that’s also fun for the individual who’s doing the exercise is key.
The Importance of Exercise as We Age
Having good balance is an important way to prevent falls, but there are many benefits to regular exercise, especially as we age. Physical activity along with a healthy diet are two of the most important lifestyle factors that determine whether or not we age gracefully.
Finding an exercise program that’s fun and engaging is essential if we want to create a lasting habit, but there are lots of different types of exercise to choose from. Senior citizens should choose an exercise program that they can continue to do over the course of time as their bodies change.
Exercise is not just a way to get into shape or to prevent injurious falls. It can also be a reason to go outside and get fresh air. It can be a reason to socialize and mix with other like-minded individuals of all ages.
Through exercise, people tune into their physical bodies and notice what’s going right and what’s going wrong. Exercise, for many people, is a way to meditate on whatever is bothering them. Through exercise, senior citizens can enhance their physical, mental, emotional, and even their social well-being.
One of the most important reasons why seniors exercise is to prevent disease. Older individuals who engage in regular physical activity experience a much lower risk of many diseases including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Moderate, regular exercise boosts immune function in part by moving lymph fluids through the body. When lymph is moved by the pumping action of muscles, immunity is enhanced. Even light exercises like walking get the lymph fluids moving to keep immunity functioning at a higher level.
In addition to improved physical health, many individuals experience better mental health as a result of regular exercise. Exercise promotes the production of serotonin and other feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine. Repetitive movement exercises like walking and jogging not only relieve stress, but they also help the body produce neurotransmitters that can ward off serious mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
Exercise gives senior citizens a reason to get out of the house into the fresh air to mix with others in a casual way. This facet of exercise alone can have a significant positive impact on mental health.
Exercise promotes blood flow to the brain and research has shown that older individuals who exercise regularly are less likely to experience cognitive decline as they age. Exercise has neuroprotective effects that can translate into important rewards as people age. In addition to its mood-boosting effects, exercise also helps senior citizens maintain clear, cogent thinking and the ability to make wise decisions on their own behalf.
Decreased Risk of Falls
Exercise works to prevent both physical and mental illness, but it can also diminish the risk of serious accidents in older adults. Senior citizens are at a much higher risk of suffering serious falls that can have life-changing consequences in terms of their ability to remain independent.
Anything that decreases the risk of falls is likely to also enhance the senior citizen’s ability to continue living independently. Exercises that enhance the individual’s balance are the most beneficial in terms of helping prevent the risk of accidental falls.
Injury resulting from a fall can lead to broken bones, head injuries, or joint injuries that can ultimately rob an older individual of their independence and a high quality of life. Balance-related exercises like Tai Chi or yoga are ideal for seniors because they’re engaging, practical, and they can both be calibrated to address the needs of older individuals.
Benefits of Balance Exercises
Exercise should feel like play no matter what the age of the person exercising. And in addition to experiencing better balance through exercise, seniors will also enjoy these other rewards from doing exercise:
● Increased muscle mass.
Just as younger individuals workout to build muscle mass, older individuals who exercise also get to enjoy this perk. Muscles with more mass that are stronger are better able to buffer the impact of a serious fall. An older individual with strong arms will be able to catch themselves and avoid hitting their head on the ground. And good muscle tone also provides protection to the joints and bones to prevent serious injuries should a fall occur.
● Better cognitive function.
People who exercise regularly have better brain function overall. Exercise promotes the release of certain neurotransmitters that help keep the brain healthy even during times of stress. The clearer thinking that comes from regular exercise can help people navigate more effectively through complex environments and it may actually help people prevent falls by avoiding precarious situations.
● Better sleep.
Getting plenty of exercise helps seniors sleep more soundly and rest more profoundly which is important for older individuals who may be struggling with disrupted sleep patterns. Exercise alerts the body to the time of day and helps seniors maintain a healthy circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm issues can cause chronic foggy thinking and irritability. Going outside and getting some sun while exercising is doubly beneficial for seniors who need a reason to get outdoors for part of the day.
● Faster reaction times.
Having quick reflexes saves a lot of younger people from falling, but as individuals get older, their reaction times get slower. Exercise can help increase reaction time considerably by strengthening muscles and encouraging them to perform more quickly. Fast reaction times can help keep a person upright if they start to fall by putting a hand on a wall or quickly grabbing onto something that’s stable.
● Stronger bones.
Weight-bearing and resistance exercises can lead to stronger bones. When the ligaments that attach muscles to bones pull against the periosteum (the outer covering of bone tissue) of the bone during contraction, this gentle pulling causes bones to become more dense. Denser bones are less likely to break even after a fall.
● Better coordination.
Coordination, like balance, is something many people take for granted. Indeed, coordination and balance are related concepts. Good coordination can help an individual roll rather than crash when they fall. Being well coordinated can help an older individual fall without hitting their head on the corner of a table nearby. Often, coordination happens without conscious thought or effort. Rather, it is the result of coordination training that happens through regular exercise.
● Reduce the risk of falling.
The various physical benefits of exercise ultimately translate into a reduced risk of falling overall. In addition to the general health benefits that regular exercisers reap, a reduced risk of falling and a reduced risk of being injured by a fall are important considerations. Falls can have a serious impact on the health of senior citizens, but the best way to prevent falls is for seniors to do regular balance-related exercises. In turn, these exercises will translate into additional health benefits and a generally enhanced quality of life.
Balance Exercises for Seniors
Single Limb Stance
This is a very simple balancing exercise that almost any senior can do with relative ease. You will need a chair, countertop, or something else to hold onto. As you get better at the exercise, you may not need to use the support anymore, but at first it’s always good to have something there to help you balance.
1) Start by standing upright with your arms at your sides. Breathe normally and look straight ahead.
2) Lift one leg up off the ground and hold it there as you balance. Start by holding your leg up for 10 seconds before switching to the other leg. Work up to one minute of balancing on each leg.
3) Remember to keep your weight and your “center” over your ankles as much as you can! This exercise is all about getting in touch with your center of gravity.
Variation: Single Limb with Arm
This is a slightly more difficult version of the single limb stance that is designed for seniors who are looking to take things up a notch. However, it’s still low impact and simple to execute.
1) Start by standing upright with one arm in the air and the other either next to your side or holding onto a chair or countertop. Breathe normally and look straight ahead.
2) Lift the same leg off the floor and hold it for 10 seconds to 1 minute. So, if you have your right arm in the air, you’ll lift your right foot off the ground, and vice versa.
3) When doing this exercise, you can either lift your left out in front of you slightly, or you can bend it back behind you.
Eye tracking is a balance exercise that can be done while you are either sitting or standing. Because balance is so intimately connected to vision and hearing, this vision exercise can improve balance dramatically. It’s a straightforward exercise, but it’s important to keep in mind that it may make some people a bit dizzy, especially at first. If this happens, take a break immediately and use smaller head movements the next time you try it.
1) Hold your thumb up in front of your face at a comfortable distance with your elbow bent.
2) Move your thumb from left to right. Follow it with your eyes, but don’t move your head.
3) Keeping your head in the same position, move your thumb upward and downward, again only following it with your eyes.
1) Straighten your arm out in front of you and hold up your thumb.
2) Keep your eyes on your thumb, and move your arm from left to right. This time, move your head as you follow your thumb with your eyes.
3) Move your arm upward and downward, again following your thumb with your eyes.
This is an exercise that both helps with balance as well as general coordination. The clock reach can be a fun exercise to do that can make a big difference in helping you maintain your center of gravity over your ankles (where it should be). Remember to keep your eyes open, your gaze straight ahead, and to keep breathing normally during the entire exercise.
1) Start by standing upright next to a chair, countertop, or another stable object that you can hold onto. Imagine a clock that circles around your upper torso. 12 o’clock is directly in front of you, 3 o’clock is to your side, and 6 o’clock is to your back.
2) Lift up one foot and also lift up your arm on the same side to where it is stretched out in front of you toward 12 o’clock.
3) While keeping your leg in the air, move your arm horizontally around to 3 o’clock, and then to 6 o’clock, then back the other way.
4) Put your arm back down at your side and set your leg down too.
5) Repeat on the other side.
This exercise will specifically help with improving balance while walking. You will need to have a piece of tape, string, or something similar to put on the ground as a “line”. You will also need to have an object to hold onto. Keep your chin and chest up and breathe normally! More advanced exercisers can try doing this exercise with their eyes closed or can stand on a pillow for a bigger challenge.
1) Stand straight with your feet together and your hands at your sides. You should be standing on your “line”.
2) Step forward with your right foot and put it on the line directly in front of the left foot. Hold this position for 10 seconds (you can hold it longer the more you practice).
3) Return your right foot to its initial position and repeat with the left foot.
This is another sitting exercise that is designed to improve balance as well as overall coordination. Specifically, it develops hand-eye coordination, which in turn improves balance. You will need a “wand”, which can be anything that is long and relatively lightweight. The wand could be an umbrella, wooden dowel, a long wooden spoon, a cane, or anything similar!
1) Start by sitting straight in a chair (preferably one without arms).
2) Take your wand and place it so that it is “standing” straight up in the palm of your dominant hand.
3) When you’re ready, let go of the wand and start balancing! The goal is to keep the wand balanced in your hand for as long as possible without ever letting it fall. Move your arm as needed to keep the wand balanced.
If you want a more advanced exercise, consider balancing the wand with your non-dominant hand, balancing it on the back of your hand, or even balancing one wand in each hand at the same time! Be careful, but don’t forget to have fun!
Knee marching is a great exercise for improving balance, and it’s also a mild, low impact exercise for muscle weakness. This exercise improves muscle strength in the ankles, hips, and legs; those muscles are essential for balance! Knee marching is unique in that the slower you do the exercise, the more difficult it gets. So if you want to make things a bit more advanced, consider slowing down the marching.
1) Stand facing forward with your feet together and arms at your sides.
2) Lift one knee up as high as you can comfortably, and then lower it back down. Repeat with the other leg (like you’re marching).
3) Repeat 20 times for best results. You can do this exercise for up to 2 minutes straight if you feel up to the challenge!
Body circles are a great way to improve your ankle strength. Strong ankles are one of the most important elements of good balance! This exercise can be done either sitting or standing, although this outline will look at the standing version of the exercise. If you want to make things more challenging, do the body circles while standing on a pillow, bring your feet in closer together, or hold a piece of paper and read while doing the exercise.
1) Start by standing upright with your arms at your sides and your feet positioned shoulder-width apart.
2) Keeping your body straight, begin to slowly sway your body in a circle. Start by swaying forward, then to the side, to the back, and then finally back to the front again.
3) Continue circling for 1 minute, then switch to doing the circles in the other direction.
If you need to use a chair for support while doing the standing exercise, you will still benefit from the exercise. For the chair version, sway in the same manner. A stool is best for the sitting version of this exercise.
This exercise is for seniors who are more advanced in practicing balance exercises. It is a great exercise for improving balance while walking as well as for improving confidence in being able to move easily during the day. You will need a “line” (tape, a string, or something similar), and though the goal is to step directly on this line, it’s okay if you can only get close. This is intended as a visual cue more than a strict guide.
1) Start standing on a “line” with one foot in front of the other, heel-to-toe.
2) Take a step forward on the line. You will likely need to look down to see where you are stepping at first, but you can make things more challenging by looking straight ahead.
3) Continue stepping forward until you reach the end of your line, and then turn around and go back the other way.
If you do not have a kitchen counter or some other similar surface that you can use for balance as you walk along, you will need the help of someone else to do this exercise.