figure they've acquired everything they need to know about balance by the time
they've started running between the furniture on toddler's legs. The
coordination lesson, however, doesn't end with winning a round of hopscotch.
Balance becomes a whole new challenge as people age and when the simple act of
standing becomes an issue. But some forms of exercise could help prevent
injuries resulting from a loss of balance.
Wright, bending over to lift a few grocery bags off the ground became dangerous.
A hip problem has limited his mobility, and he found himself beginning to lose
his balance doing things that he previously never thought about. "I'm 69,
so we lose a little bit of that as we get older," he said during a break
from his Power Play workout at St. John Siegfried Health Center. Wright, flushed
after several minutes of balancing his weight horizontally on a stability ball
while alternately raising his legs backward, is one of Daniel Smejkal's students
in the course aimed at fine-tuning people's coordination.
The class goes
through motions using weighted sticks, bosu balls (which actually look like half
a ball), mats and weights to improve agility. "This is really, really
preventive," said Gwen Moudry, exercise physiologist at the center, as she
watched the class. "These folks in this class are probably at a relatively
low risk of falling because they're thinking preventively and honing in on those
skills. It's just like everything else. If you don't use it, you lose it."
began about three years ago as an alternative to the center's pool therapy
classes. Functional training uses easily attainable equipment and easily
transferrable exercises, which people can practice in their homes.
becomes an issue for older adults for a variety of reasons. The inner ear, which
is filled with fluid gauging equilibrium, can be affected by disease and
illness. Or a weak immune system can lead to blockage in the inner ear, causing
dizziness, Moudry said. Sometimes, loss of vision or medication plays a factor
in the body's ability to find it's center of gravity. Strengthening the body's
ability to correct itself when balance is lost is a good way to counter the
problem, she said.
also a concern with conditions such as multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis,
arthritis, Parkinson's disease and even heart disease. "Other than
cardiovascular disease, the older you get, your greatest risk is falling,"
and for an elderly person who has fractured a hip bone, the chance of dying
within the year is about 30 percent, Moudry said.
the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Injury Prevention and
Control Web site, www.cdc.gov/ncipc, more than 60 percent of adults 75 and older
die from falls, and nearly 13,000 people 65 and older died from fall-related
injuries in 2002. And lack of movement affects general health and mental
wellbeing, she said. "You're fear factor just grows and grows, and you
continually avoid more and more activities. The more activities you avoid, the
less skills you have," Moudry said. "They just stop moving, so they
don't play with their grandchildren. Some of them stop doing their grocery
shopping, stop going to church, because the risk of getting up one or two steps
is too hard. "If they don't go to church and they don't keep shopping, then
you're housebound, right? It doesn't take very long from there until you're in a
chair," she said.
At one stage
in the class, Wright and the others, mostly seniors, balance on top of bosu
balls while they toss a smaller ball back and forth with a partner, simulating a
game they might play with grandchildren. Smejkal said the exercises are based on
real-life activities, such as walking down stairs and pulling yourself out of a
car or bath tub. And it focuses on the way people live their lives. People
naturally talk and turn their heads while they walk with others. With age,
however, people may be forced to concentrate more fully on the walking aspect.
training works in motion and to people's different fitness levels. It also works
to all ages, he said. "Obviously, it's a little more identified in the
elderly population, but I've had young people take my class and be humbled by
it," Smejkal said. "I can maybe run a marathon and lift heavy weights,
but standing on one leg, I'm challenged. What it really boils down to is the
intelligence of the muscles to work together."
training is good at any age, but it is especially important for people beginning
at the age of 50. "Older adults, even from 50 years and up become overly
cautious. Why? Because their friends have fallen and hurt themselves, and
they're not going to take that risk," Moudry said. "We're opening the
door and saying we're going to set up a safe environment and let you take some
risk so you can progress."
already have serious health problems affecting their balance should consult with
a physician before signing up for the class. A doctor may find physical therapy
more appropriate along with other treatment. Wright said he is unable to do some
of the exercises in the class, but he is a regular. The class, taught weekly on
Tuesday and Thursday mornings, usually grows after summer.
really helped me, and Daniel is really good at what he does, "Wright said.
Power Play is only part of his fitness regimen, which also includes
cardiovascular and strength training. Smejkal advises his other students to do
the same to meet the body's other health needs and to seek out other forms of
balance-focused activities such as yoga, Pilates and tai chi.
mistake about it - we're going to skip and fall out there," Smejkal said.
"We live in an unstable world. All we can do is prepare for it."
Before you begin
starting any exercise regimen
focus on four types of exercise (strength, balance, stretching and endurance) to
stay healthy and independent. But before starting any exercise program, older
adults should speak with a doctor, especially if they are at risk for any
chronic diseases (such as heart disease or diabetes) or if they smoke or are
A few other
exercise tips to keep in mind are:
• Don't hold your breath during strength exercises. This
could affect your blood pressure.
Use smooth, steady movements to bring weights into position and avoid jerking,
strained or thrusting movements.
Breathe out as you lift or push a weight and breathe in as you relax.
Hold onto a table or chair for balance with only one hand. As you progress, try
holding on with only one fingertip.
Next, try the exercises without holding on at all. Ask someone to watch you the
first few times in case you lose your balance.
Always warm up before stretching exercises by doing them after endurance or
strength exercises or by doing some easy walking or arm-pumping first.
Stretch after your activities, when your muscles are warm.
Dress appropriately for the heat and cold.
National Institute on Aging