When you are young, you can walk confidently just about anywhere without much thought – such as on an uneven sidewalk – or while chatting at the same time. As you get older, just glancing sideways a store window while strolling can make you wobble – and fall. Here is what’s going on… and some moves that will keep you steadier on your feet.
Why Falls Occur:
One in four Americans over the age of 65 falls each year. One reason is that older people are more prone to medical conditions that compromise balance – such as vertigo, dizziness, arthritis-related stiffness and weakness, stroke, and loss of sensation in the feet from vascular diseases. But even without major health issues, normal physical and vision changes can affect balance.
Your eyes signal the brain where you are in space relative to other objects, which helps keep you stable. Wearing bifocals or progressive lenses requires your focus to change back and forth between lenses, making it harder to notice a loose rug, sidewalk crack or pet.
The natural age-related decline in muscle strength and flexibility also makes it harder to right yourself once your center of gravity is thrown off. That’s why the key to staying on your feet is to build your muscle strength and improve your flexibility and agility. Here is how –
As we age, our pace slows, our step length shortens, and our stance widens as shifting from one leg to the other feels less secure. To keep your strides long and confident and avert a shuffling gait, you can do foot taps – an exercise that trains your body to safely shift your center of gravity left and right.
How To Do It:
Stand in front of a step that is four-to-six inches high (such as a footstool). Feet hip-width apart. Slowly raise one foot to tap the step. Return that foot to the ground and then tap with the other foot. Movement should be slow and controlled. Work up to 20 taps for each foot in a session. As your stability improves, try a higher step (six-to-eight inches) – or try tapping the step as lightly as possible to further improve balance and increase muscle control.
If needed, you can hold a railing or counter for support. If you use a cane for general walking assistance, hold it in the hand you usually use to hold it throughout the exercise, regardless of which foot you’re tapping. If you’re using a cane while recovering from an injury or for a condition that affects your gait, such as arthritis, hold the cane on the side opposite to the injury or painful extremity.
People who worry about falling often are self-conscious about walking – which is counterproductive. The more attention you pay to how you’re walking, the more shuffled and fractured your gait becomes. Natural gait needs to be reflexive. This exercise uses a ball for distraction to help your gait become more fluid, increase your ability to shift weight left and right.
This exercise is not recommended if you need to use a cane to walk.
How To Do It:
You’ll need a partner who is comfortable walking backward and a small ball, such as a tennis ball. Start at one end of a long hallway with your partner facing you and a few feet in front of you, holding the ball. Walk forward while your partner walks backward – handing off or gently tossing the ball back and forth to each other as you go. Perform this exercise for two or three minutes or until you feel tired.
Stand in front of a wall, and march in place while you toss the ball at the wall and catch it as it bounces back. Repeat for 30 seconds, for a total of three times.