At any age, it makes sense to keep yourself in balance

Tuesday, August 19, 2008
FRED LYNCH ~ flynch@semissourian.com Yoga participants stretched in a class offered at HealthPoint Plaza.

There are times in your life when feeling a little off-balance may actually be a good thing. Take it from the experts.

Although there are some changes you can't avoid as you get older, including deterioration of your hearing, vision and coordination, research suggests that it's worth taking steps — even risking a few missteps — to slow the decline in your balance.

Loss of balance makes us vulnerable to falls, which can be dangerous at any age but is the fifth-leading cause of death for people 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC makes a number of recommendations to prevent falls, including exercising regularly to maintain muscle and getting enough Vitamin D and calcium to preserve bone strength. But a growing number of physicians, physical therapists and personal trainers go further, advocating exercises designed to challenge the complex system of reflexes that governs our stability and spatial orientation.

"Your core is your balance," Kate Loos said as she stood on a Bosu ball at HealthPoint Plaza in Cape Girardeau. Loos said she regularly works her core "to practice my stability, which helps with my running."

Running or walking requires balance and stability and as Roger Yasin, a personal trainer in Arlington, Va., puts it, it's smart for younger people to start doing these exercises. Yasin said many of his clients are surprised to find out how their balance declines over time, and they often underestimate how important balance is to navigating the hazards in their daily lives, from escalators to uneven sidewalks and grassy hills.

"Many people don't think of balance when they think of personal training; they think of diet and weight loss, or they want to get ready for a wedding or reunion."

Donna Rendleman said she never really thinks about balance as a part of her workout. She went to yoga at HealthPoint, but for the mental relaxation. She said her parents put her in gymnastics as a child and "that developed a lot of my balance that I took with me the rest of my life."

Whether you're preparing for an event or doing your regular workout routine, Yasin and others recommend including exercises that address your balance. Doing so has the added advantage of helping you lose weight.

"Since you are trying to stabilize your body, you're using multiple muscle groups and can burn so many more calories," he said.

Yasin said everyone should start by balancing on the floor with one foot, before progressing to challenging equipment.

If you don't frequent the gym but would still like to avoid falls, Scott McCredie, author of "Balance: In Search of the Lost Sense," says you don't need gadgets to improve your stability or core strength.

"All you need to do is stand on one leg in various poses, and you can do that anywhere," McCredie said, whether "waiting for the bus or brushing your teeth in the bathroom."

Physical therapist Kristine Legters takes this low-tech approach by incorporating balance training into her clients' everyday lives.

"Standing on a pillow, walking on grass as opposed to concrete, or looking around and moving your head while walking as opposed to looking straight challenges and improves your balance," said Legters, who works in Pennsylvania.

The takeaway message is clear: To maintain your stability as you get older, you need to throw yourself off-balance once in a while.

Southeast Missourian features editor Chris Harris contributed to this article.

Find your balance

The following are a few of the products aimed at different levels of fitness and expertise.

  • Balance pads look like thick gymnastics mats but feel much softer. The feeling of instability created by the pad's foam surface increases as the user puts more weight on it. It can be used for rehabilitation, exercise and coordination training. Performing lunges, push-ups or sit-ups on a balance pad improves overall strength and stability.
  • Bosu ball — The Bosu, whose name stands for "Both Sides Utilized," resembles half a ball, with one flat and one domed side; it can be used for cardio, balance-building workouts or yoga. Users can sit, stand or squat on the curved side and sit or try push-ups on the flat side, all while trying to maintain balance as the body shifts to compensate for the movement of the ball.
  • Dyna-Disc — The squishy surface of this circular, air-filled mat makes users feel as if they're stepping on a deflated football. People of all ages can sit, stand or lie on the disks to improve posture and balance in the lower body. The Dyna-Disc is made from the same material as a gym ball but is more stable since it can't roll away. It comes in different sizes suitable for a variety of exercises.

— Washington Post

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