Walking, standing, sitting they seem simple – right? In truth the balance that we need to walk, stand and sit requires that our brain, spinal cord, joints of the spine and extremities, muscles, inner ear and eye work in cooperation to provide us with the information that we need to stay balanced. As we age keeping our balance may become increasingly difficult to the point that falling, which can lead to the fracture of hips, the spine and ribs, becomes a very real and threatening problem. This problem is so pervasive that is a common site to see older individuals looking constantly at their feet while walking to avoid tripping over an uneven patch of pavement that they did not think twice about when they were younger. Previous injuries to the neck and low back, cardiovascular disease, inner ear disease and the common neurodegenerative diseases (Parkinson’s, Altzhiemers) contribute to this gradual degradation of the brain-body-balance connection. Fortunately there is hope. Older adults can help delay or prevent loss of balance by understanding how the brain and body work together to maintain our intricate system of balance.
Although balance seems like second nature to us – we can see by watching a young infant learn to walk that achieving balance is developed over time. Balance involves the brain processing a series of intricate and constantly changing messages from all body parts especially the joints of our spine and extremities, muscles, eyes, inner ear and head. This information is interpreted in the brain, which causes constant changes in muscle tension and muscle balance, position of our head and eyes as well as body posture to occur. Balance is a learned behavior based upon repetition of activities that require the nerve pathways from the brain to any part of our body to be intact and operating without impediment.
Frequently poor muscle balance and tone that are common as we age which result from previous injuries cause to gradually lose the strength of a large group of muscles called extensor muscles that are found on the backside of our trunk, arms and legs. This causes our flexor muscles – those found on the front of our body to become more powerful pulling us forward into a more stooped position. At the same time the spinal joints connected to the extensor muscles also have diminished ability to send messages to the brain, which help us to stand upright and remain balanced. These factors combined with diminished eyesight leads to a gradual degeneration of the brain-body nerve pathways that maintain balance causing us to misjudge the height of a step or the ability to walk easily in the dark.
Combating the gradual loss of balance as we age is best done by incorporating daily activities that help us to maintain the brain-body- nerve pathways. Listed below are several effective ways to you maintain your balance and your health.
- Have an examination to determine the cause or causes of poor balance.
- Evaluate your current medications to determine if one or a combination is causing problems with your balance.
- Develop a “balance exercise program” with the help of your healthcare practitioner. Slow movement activities like Tai Chi, yoga and progressive stretching techniques and dancing are good first steps.
- Begin a weight-training program that emphasizes the strengthening of your extensor muscles but also is designed for overall muscle tone.
- Use an exercise ball and balance board in a supervised setting to help develop proprioception and core muscle strength.
- Exercises using an upper body bicycle will help to stimulate the proprioceptive parts of your neck and upper back.
- Practice eye field exercises on a daily basis to help improve eye muscle strength.Practice makes perfect! Doing these things on a daily basis will help you maintain your overall balance and help you enjoy your life.