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Staying balanced

Andria
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Balance

As we age, balance becomes more important, and practice makes (almost) perfect. (Illustration: behance.net/runamokstudios)

Everyone knows we’re supposed to exercise. Cardio, strength training – we’re supposed to move. But what about exercising our balance?

“Balance is one of the main things we lose as we age,” says yoga instructor Andrew Dugas. But it’s key to staying healthy – and safe. One in three adults over the age of 65 will fall every year.

As we age, balance dulls. Vision declines, inner ear systems fade, and proprioceptive systems ebb, meaning we can’t perceive our own motion, or feel, quite as acutely.

“We can’t do anything about our eyesight or inner ear function,” Andrew says. “But we can move our ankles, train ourselves to feel our bodies, strengthen our feet, become aware. Being able to actually feel your feet on the ground sounds trivial, but it makes all the difference.”

As a NASA scientist, Dr. Katharine Forth studied the effects of gravity on astronauts’ balance. “We realized the technology we invented for people on the moon would be really helpful for people on earth,” she says. So she formed a NASA spinoff company, iShoe, which uses a bathroom scale-like measure to sense balance via pressure beneath the feet. The idea is that if you know where you stand, so to speak, you can do something about it.

“It doesn’t just hit when you’re 80. Balance changes every day, oscillating a bit more the older you get,” Katharine says. “But even for younger people it can drop 40 percent if you get a bad night’s sleep.

“A fair amount of decline is due to spending time in chairs and not getting up and moving.”

Paula Pozmantier, a retired real estate broker over 65, has been practicing yoga on and off for more than 20 years, and consistently for the past six or so. She also trains with weights and does Pilates, but she credits yoga with helping her retain balance. (Weight training and Pilates use equipment – weights, bands, machines – to focus on strengthening core muscles, while yoga uses poses and stretches – often combined with a meditative component – to improve flexibility, balance and strength.)

“Yoga has helped me tremendously,” Paula says. “I haven’t had any issues with falling, even though there were times when I could have fallen but was able to catch myself.”

When Paula accidentally stepped backwards into a friend’s pool, she was aware enough of her body and posture that she was able to land on her feet. “I was soaking wet, but my host kept saying, ‘You didn’t even get your hair wet!’” Another friend did the same thing in another pool, but she lost her balance and broke her ankle.

Cliff Greenbaum, a 52-year-old entrepreneur who practices yoga regularly, says he just feels better when he goes to class.

“I started about three and a half years ago,” he says. “I was working out with a trainer, a 50th birthday present, and I wasn’t loving it. After about six or eight months of that my wife said, ‘Why don’t you try yoga?’”

Cliff started with a beginner class focused on breathing. “Amazingly I was sore the next day,” he says.

Cliff says he depends on yoga for exercise. “I might get something mental out of it, but that’s not why I’m there,” he says. “It’s made me more aware, more conscious of body position and feet and stepping and where I am at any given place in time.

“And if I don’t do it, for lack of a better term, I kind of feel yucky.”

Back to balance: Studies on fall prevention for seniors show that exercise significantly reduces injuries from falls. So where to start?

“The two most important things are to stand on one foot and practice moving your ankles,” Andrew says. If your balance is already decent, he suggests crossing one foot atop the other, like a kickstand, or a modified third position in ballet, and balancing on the weight-bearing leg. Or hold the knee of one leg up with both hands, and balance.

“If your balance is bad, regardless of age, put one hand on the wall and stand on one foot for one to two minutes. Let that foot burn; you might even be sore the next day.

“For body awareness, your first strategy is long, deep inhales. It seems simplistic, but it switches off your stress and relieves the tension in your neck and shoulders,” freeing you up to feel the rest of your body.

Bonus: Cliff says, “The breathing helps you take a step back and say, ‘Ah.’”

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