Your balance doesn't stay steady throughout your life. Just like your muscles and bones, your steadiness can deteriorate if it is not maintained. However, balance training isn't part of most workouts.
As you get older, the senses involved with balance can start to dull -- vision and your ability to sense touch, temperature, pressure and proprioception (your sense of where your body is and how it moves.) However, your balance can be shored up, even in very old age.
According to the Los Angeles Times:
"A 2007 study ... looked at the effect of a yearlong balance training program on women with osteoporosis. By the end of the study, the women's functional and static balance improved, as did mobility. Falling frequency declined ... Balance training almost always involves targeting core muscles -- the ones surrounding the trunk and the back, such as the abdominals, obliques and latissimus dorsi."
You were probably not aware that falls are the leading cause of injury death among people aged 65 and older, as well as the most common cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions for trauma, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Even a fall from ground level, such as slipping off a curb, can lead to severe injury and death.
Further, falls are incredibly common and related death rates have increased sharply in the last decade. The CDC notes that one out of three adults age 65 and over falls each year, and falls accounted for over 2 million nonfatal injuries among older adults in 2009 alone.
Not only are falls responsible for most fractures and traumatic brain injuries among the elderly, but those who fall can also develop an intense fear of falling again, which leads them to limit their activities and in turn increases their risk of falling even more. So while it may seem like exercises to improve balance are optional as you get older, they should really be viewed as a necessity -- like eating and sleeping -- as they can quite literally save your life.
Balance Exercises are Incredibly Effective at Preventing Falls
As you get older your muscle and bone mass decrease and the senses that guide your balance -- vision, touch, proprioception -- may all start to deteriorate, and this can make you unsteady on your feet.
Fortunately, as with your mind and your muscles, losing your balance is not an inevitable part of aging; you can keep your sense of balance strong, and restore what's already been lost, simply by taking the time to do balance exercises on a regular basis.
One recent study found that eight weeks of balance training reduced slips and improved the likelihood of recovery from slips among the elderly. Separate research, which noted that "altered balance is the greatest collaborator towards falls in the elderly," found balance training is effective in improving functional and static balance, mobility and falling frequency in elderly women with osteoporosis.
The ability to balance on one leg is also an important predictor of injury-causing falls, so if you know that you'd be shaky if you tried to stand on one foot, you're at an increased risk of being hurt in a fall. Remember, though, that you don't want to wait until you're wobbly to start balance training. Ideally, by doing balance exercises throughout your life you'll avoid ever losing your sense of balance in the first place.
What Types of Exercise Improve Balance?
There are a plethora of balance-training exercises available and you can include a variety of them in your workouts. This includes:
- Bosu Balance Trainers (half-sphere balls with a flat surface on top)
- Power Plate
- Stability balls
- Pilates and yoga
- Tai Chi
Generally speaking, any exercise that works your core muscles will improve your balance, as these muscles, located in your back, abdomen and pelvis, are crucial to helping you maintain balance and stability.
Paul Chek, HHP, NMT also recommends performing movements that closely approximate your everyday activities and those movements that commonly result in falls. In this past article, he demonstrates several such exercises, including the touch-toe drill, bench squat and supine lateral ball roll.
An Exciting Balance Breakthrough: The Power Plate
I have some personal experience with people over 65 falling and injuring themselves. My mother has fallen twice now and fractured her pelvis, broke her shoulder and wrist in the last few years. So at the ripe age of 74 I finally convinced her to start an exercise program of weight training and the Power Plate. I am pleased to report that her subjective improvement in her sense of balance has shot through the roof.
That is largely because one of the most exciting balance-training options on the fitness front is the Power Plate, a whole body workout exercise machine that engages 95 percent of your muscle fibers.
This multi-directional vibration machine has a number of benefits for your health, beyond the cardiovascular and metabolic aspects commonly associated with exercise. For example, the vibrational action of the Power Plate can help improve the following:
The tri-directional movement promotes proprioception, which is just a medical term for sensing the relative position of neighboring parts of your body. Proprioception is an internal feedback mechanism crucial for balance, as your body constantly adjusts to uneven terrain as you walk.
The unique ability of the Power Plate to train and build your neurological system has huge implications for treating people with neurological problems—for example, Multiple Sclerosis (MS), peripheral neuropathy, and elderly individuals who are prone to falls because of instability.
If you have ever done any exercise training on an uneven surface, you'll have noticed that it's harder -- you were recruiting more muscle fibers and more energetic pathways. The same idea applies to the Power Plate.
As the video below shows, you can re-train motor patterns and re-establish communication within your body as the Power Plate balances muscle groups, resulting in profound improvements in your overall balance.
If you are thinking of purchasing a Power Plate, be aware that there are a variety of cheap clones on the market being sold under different names. Typically, such machines are manufactured using vibrating equipment that is notoriously poor with faulty electronics, cheap bearings and buttons, and shoddy welds that often fail.
I suggest at least evaluating the Power Plate before deciding on a model, as you could be making a significant mistake by purchasing something cheaper that won't give you the same benefits.
A Comprehensive Fitness Approach is Best
Balance training is important, but is not the only type of exercise you need to build an optimally fit body. Ideally your fitness program should be comprehensive, providing the necessary balance-training activities for stability while also improving your strength, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness and fat-burning capabilities with high-intensity "Sprint 8" exercises.
During the 'Sprint 8 exercises,' you raise your heart rate up to your anaerobic threshold for 20 to 30 seconds, followed by a 90-second recovery period. You repeat this cycle for a total of eight repetitions.
For an in-depth explanation of my Peak Fitness regimen, please review this past article, and for even more fitness tips that will keep you in optimal health no matter what your age, be sure to review Mercola Peak Fitness for a variety of important fitness videos and articles.