A recent study has shown that loss of balance is not just a problem for the oldest. Like strength, agility and muscle mass, balance tends to start declining in midlife.
“We think of it as an older person’s problem because we see the catastrophic consequences of older people falling and breaking a hip,” says Cedric Bryant, Chief Science Officer of the American Council on Exercise. But small changes that start earlier can affect everything from athletic performance to the ability to easily rise from a chair, he says.
The study, published in the ‘Journals of Gerontology: Medical Sciences’, found that these declines start with people in their 50s. The study involved 775 adults aged between 30 and 90 plus and tested them on balance, gait speed, aerobic endurance and the ability to repeatedly sit and stand.
All scores decreased from the younger participants to the older ones, but scores for balance and the ‘sit and stand’ test were the first to fall, starting with people in their 50s.
The average thirty or forty something could balance for around 60 seconds, but people in their 50s could only manage 45 seconds. The decline increased for people in their 60s with a balance time of around 40 seconds and, for people in their 70s, it was 27 seconds. For people over 80, it was 12 seconds.
“You should be thinking about balance before you have a fall,” says Professor Hall, one of the study’s authors.
Balance is not just a case of how well the vestibular system of the inner ear works. Declines in strength, flexibility, vision, touch and mental functioning can all affect balance, says Assistant Professor Peter Wayne, from Harvard Medical School.
“Balance is a very complicated process,” says Wayne. But the experts note that making improvements can be simple. Here are a few tips:
• Practice standing on one foot and challenge yourself to increase the time. You can do this waiting in a queue or while brushing your teeth. If that’s too challenging, begin by using the back of a chair or bathroom counter for support. As you progress, try raising your foot higher or holding it out to the side. For extra challenge, try standing on a cushion or closing your eyes.
• Try heel-to-toe walking, as if on a balance beam.
• Practice getting in and out of a chair without using your hands.
• Exercise while standing on a Bosu ball (an inflated rubber disc on a stable platform).
If you have already fallen, are unsteady on your feet or have a medical condition affecting your balance, you should get advice from your GP before trying the above exercises. If you become suddenly unsteady or dizzy, you should seek medical advice.