Balance DOES Matter!
“ I can’t walk in a straight line,” or feel unsteady when I stand up.”
These are some of the comments heard when someone is questioning their balance. These and many other signs are signals that you may have a physical issue that is compromising your balance. As the average age of our population in the United States grows, there is an increase in the number of people remaining active who want to continue to participate in varied activities. Yet a compromise in balance may keep them from undertaking many things they want to do. However, the good news is that balance can often improve with the appropriate identification of the problem and working to solve it. Understanding balance can be helpful to seniors so that they can make informed, thoughtful health decisions and be an advocate for their own safety.
Balance itself means, as many of my patients have said, staying upright or not hitting the floor. In actuality, balance is a complicated multifactorial process that can be interrupted by a change in any of the many functions in our body or our environment. For instance, you may trip over something because you did not see the obstacle in front of you, or you may lose your balance when you first stand up because you can’t hold your knee straight.
Loss of strength, coordination and sensation can decrease the ability to move safely. Dizziness or fear of falling can affect your ability to move to keep balanced. Many people have loss of feeling in their feet due to diabetes. In addition, problems with eyesight or hearing can affect your balance. According to the National Council on Aging, every 11 seconds an older adult is treated in the emergency department for a fall. The cost of falls is enormous on a personal level for the individual and on a national level for our health-care system. Scientists have linked several personal risk factors to falling, including muscle weakness, problems with balance and gait, as well as blood pressure. Confusion, stress and medications may also contribute to loss of balance. Through practical lifestyle adjustments and an evidence-based prevention program, falls can be reduced.
The National Institute on Aging suggests you “Take the Right Steps”:
• Stay physically active. Plan an exercise program that is right for you. Regular exercise makes your muscles stronger.
• Have your eyes and hearing tested regularly.
• Get enough sleep each night. If you are sleepy, you are more likely to fall.
• Find out about side effects of any medicine you take.
• Stand up slowly so that you don’t have a long drop in your blood pressure.
• Use an assistive device if you need help feeling steady when you walk.
• Wear comfortable, supportive shoes with low heels.
• Fall-proof your home – i.e., explore safety tips to reduce risk.
When it comes to being active and exercising, there are many ways to participate in exercise activity, but you are more likely to be consistent if you participate in something you enjoy. There are four types of exercise you should focus on: endurance, strength, balance and flexibility. You need to try to work up to at least 30 minutes of activity every day that gives you a challenge. Vary the type of activity you do to include each type of exercise, and get advice when you are not sure what to do or how to get started. Your physical therapist is a trained professional who understands movement, balance and exercise, and they are able to set you up on a personalized program that suits you even when you have some diagnoses.
Three important things to remember are that (1) balance is individualized – each person’s balance may have a different cause; (2) always check with your doctor before starting an exercise program and follow his recommendations; and (3) you may need an individualized balance program that can be done by your physical therapist.
Dr. Paula Click-Fenter is an associate professor of physical therapy at LSU Health Shreveport s School of Allied Health Professions. In addition to teaching, she is clinically active in the health sciences center being involved with patients who have chronic disease, neuromuscular disease and rheumatologic diseases. She has specialty training and board certifications from the American Physical Therapy Association (geriatrics, women s health and hand), Louisiana Physical Therapy Association and Louisiana Geriatric Society.
References: National Institute on Aging; National Council on Aging