There are three officially recognized systems that contribute to a person's balance and fall risk. They consist of our vision (what we see and our orientation to the horizon), proprioception (the system of receptors in our joint that tell our brain what positions our joints are in), and vestibular (our inner ear or our internal gyroscope). All three of these systems work together to feed the brain thousands of data points a second to keep us standing upright. Without them, we would have significant health problems related to injurious falls, functional mobility, and decreased community ambulation. More importantly, decreased balance and increased fall risk are highly associated with a decline in overall health and mortality rate.
Since balance is such a key contributor to healthy aging, it is important to receive baseline testing. If one of these systems is not working appropriately then it is important to seek an evaluation from a qualified healthcare provider. These systems can be improved with specific therapies and exercises.
The Fourth Factor
The unofficial balance system that almost always gets overlooked is strength and muscle coordination. In fact, sometimes it is considered the unofficial fourth system of balance. If we lack core stability, lower extremity strength, and the ability to coordinate muscle groups, then staying upright and walking can be very challenging.
Think about this for a moment: If all of our systems that maintain our joint positioning, angular velocity, pitch, yaw, and head positioning are working perfectly, how effective are these systems if we do not have the strength to properly execute decisions made by our brain? Lower extremity strength is the motor or power that literally moves us. Think of the three balance systems as the computer circuitry and the muscles as the battery that brings those systems to life!
It is critical to maintain lower extremity strength as we age. There are numerous studies that suggest lower body strength contributes to lower mortality rates and cognitive function.
Lower Body Strengthening Exercises
The stronger you are today translates to fewer problems in the future. So the time to act is now, not when problems begin to arise. By that time, it may be too late. Let's look at three easy steps to begin a simple activity program that can help strengthen your lower legs and core.
- Begin a walking program- If you can’t walk very far, start small. Walk around the house. Up and down the hallway, around the table or couch. Once you feel more confident, move to the driveway or sidewalk. Increase your distance and time slowly over a period of weeks.
- Stair climbing – Stair climbing is a quick, easy way to build quad, glute, and lower back strength. It is also demanding for your cardiovascular system, challenging it, and improving its function. Start with just 1-4 steps in a row. Ascend and descend them in a safe manner. As you grow stronger, work your way up an entire flight of stairs. Eventually, do multiple flights in a row.
- Strengthening exercises – Calf raises, glute squeezes, bridges, hip abduction, and mini lunges are all good beginner exercises. These exercises can all be performed in your own home, as long as you hold on to a sturdy countertop for safety and take things slow. Start with five repetitions of each. Work your way up to three sets of five and eventually three sets of 10. If that becomes too simple, join an exercise group. (A move that also helps you make new friends and stay motivated to keep up with your practice.)
So, there you have it, three easy steps to improve overall health, balance, and safety that you can begin to perform today in your own home. The next step is yours!