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Health and Wellness

How to improve your balance and avoid falling

Falls happen to us all. And if you’re young and limber, chances are you can pick yourself up and brush yourself off after a tumble.

It’s different as you get older. Falls happen more often, with more serious consequences. Each year one in three Americans 65 and older suffers a fall.

In his book Balance: In Search of the Lost Sense, Scott McCredie explained that the sense of balance starts to decline in one’s 20s and goes downhill from there, unless you take steps to restore it.

Physical therapist Marilyn Moffat of New York University emphasizes that balance is a motor skill that requires training the same way you train your muscles for strength and your heart for aerobic capacity. And key to maintaining balance is strengthening your “core” muscles (abs, back and pelvis). Having strong core muscles also makes it easier to do most physical activities, according to www.mayoclinic.com.

In her Personal Health column in The New York Times, Jane E. Brody described several balance-enhancing exercises, some of which are simple and others are harder than they seem:

Stand on one foot while you’re brushing your teeth. Tighten your deepest abdominal muscle (the one you feel when you cough).

Sit in a firm chair with your arms crossed–don’t lean against the back. Stand up straight and sit down again as quickly as you can without using your arms. Repeat 3 times and build to 10 reps. Do this once or twice a day to increase ankle, leg and hip strength and help you adjust to changes in position without getting dizzy.

Heel-to-toe tandem walking. Holding your stomach muscles tight and your chin tucked in, place one foot in front of the other, touching heel to toe. Walk 10 or more feet and repeat the exercise once or twice a day. This is best done on a firm uncarpeted floor.

Walk on your toes, then on your heels to strengthen your ankles.

Try sidestepping. Face a wall and step sideways with one leg (bring the other foot to it) 10 times in each direction. After mastering that, try a dance-like move. Sidestep once to your right, then cross your left leg behind. Sidestep to the right again and cross your left leg in front. Repeat 10 times. Then do it in the other direction.

When you start exercising to improve your balance, you may want to hold onto a counter or sturdy chair. As you get steadier, you can try first with no hands and then with your eyes closed.

“In addition,” said Brody, “the slow, continuous movements of tai chi, the popular Chinese exercise, have been shown in scientific studies to improve balance and reduce the risk of falls.”

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