Aging Gracefully: The Importance of Balance Training for Seniors

In an aging population, it becomes increasingly important to ensure that seniors maintain their balance and mobility to reduce the risk of falls, resulting in injuries and a lack of independence. In this article, we will discuss why older people lose balance, what seniors can do to improve their balance, the best exercises for addressing poor balance, and the fitness tools and equipment available for balance training.

Why do older people lose balance?

As we age, our body experiences natural changes that can negatively affect our balance (1). The most common changes include a decrease in muscle strength and flexibility, a deterioration in visual acuity, and changes in the nervous system’s ability to detect and respond to changes in our environment. Our muscles help us maintain balance by providing the necessary strength to move around and support our bodies. However, as we age, our muscles naturally lose strength, through decreased activity and the inevitable aging process, which can make it harder to maintain our balance. Additionally, our flexibility may decrease and reaction times slow, which results in it being more difficult to move about, make sudden changes in direction and regain balance during times of unsteadiness.

Our eyes play a crucial role in maintaining our balance by giving us information and feedback about our environment. However, as we age, our vision may deteriorate, making obstacles and hazards harder to see. Furthermore, our proprioception (the nervous system’s ability to detect and respond to changes in our environment) may decrease or slow down, resulting in it being more difficult to adjust our balance to changes in the terrain e.g., slopes or uneven footpaths.

It is important for any fitness professional to screen for other potential causes of poor balance such as low blood pressure, infection, inner ear problems or medication related issues and refer to a qualified medical professional when indicated.

balance training for seniors

What can seniors do to improve balance?

The good news is that just like with any other skill, seniors can improve their balance through exercise and training. A systematic review published by researchers at the University of Sydney found clear evidence that exercise intervention can help to prevent falls in older adults (2). Regular exercise can improve muscle strength and flexibility, increase visual acuity, and improve the body’s proprioception. Seniors can improve their balance by incorporating exercises that safely challenge their balance and coordination. These exercises can include:

  • Tai Chi (3): A gentle form of exercise that involves slow, flowing movements, Tai Chi challenges balance and coordination. Studies have shown that Tai Chi can improve balance, reduce the risk of falls, and improve overall physical functioning in older adults.
  • Yoga: Another gentle form of exercise that can help improve balance, flexibility, and strength. Yoga poses such as tree pose, warrior III, and half-moon pose can challenge balance and coordination. Another great benefit of yoga is that it can be modified to any level.
  • Strength Training: The main goal of strength training is to help improve muscle strength, which is essential for maintaining balance. Exercises such as squats, lunges, and calf raises can help build leg strength and consequently improve balance.
  • Walking: A simple but effective way to improve balance and coordination, walking, especially on uneven terrain, such as grass, sand, or gravel, can challenge balance and help improve overall stability.

What is the best exercise for poor balance?

The best exercise for poor balance depends on the individual’s specific needs and abilities. However, there are several exercises that have been shown to be effective in improving balance in seniors.

  • Single Leg Balance: Stand on one leg and not only try to maintain your balance for as long as possible but do so with minimal sway or movement. Repeat on the other leg. This exercise can be made more challenging by closing your eyes or standing on an unstable surface, such as a foam pad.
  • Heel-to-Toe Walk: Walk in a straight line, placing your heel in front of your toe with each step. This exercise can be made more challenging by walking on an uneven surface or turning your head to the side while walking.
  • Balancing Wand: Hold a wand or broomstick out in front of you and try to maintain your balance while moving it in different directions. Again, this exercise can be made more challenging by closing your eyes or standing on an unstable surface.
technogym balance tools

Fitness tools and equipment for balance training:

There are several fitness tools and equipment available for balance training, including:

  • Balance Boards: A popular tool for balance training, balance boards come in various shapes and sizes, but the basic concept is the same. You stand on the board and try to maintain your balance while the board moves underneath you. This exercise challenges your balance and improves coordination.
  • Stability Balls: You can use stability balls for a variety of exercises, including squats, lunges, and core exercises. They challenge your balance and improve your stability.
  • Resistance Bands: Not only used for strength training, resistance bands are also a versatile tool for balance training. They can be used for a variety of exercises, including leg lifts, squats, and lunges, challenging your balance, and improving your muscle strength at the same time.
  • Foam Pads: Providing an unstable surface that you can stand on or perform various exercises on, foam pads challenge your balance and improve your stability.
  • BOSU Ball and Balance Pods: Half stability ball with a flat bottom, a BOSU can be used for a variety of exercises, including squats, lunges, and core exercises. They challenge your balance and improve your stability.
  • BandBell Bars are a phenomenal piece of equipment, for working with clients who are ready for a new challenge.
balance training for older people

Maintaining balance and mobility is crucial for seniors to reduce the risk of falls and injuries. As we age, our body experiences natural changes that can affect our balance, but regular exercise and training can help improve muscle strength and flexibility, increase visual acuity, and improve the nervous system’s ability to detect and respond to changes in our environment. Seniors can incorporate exercises that challenge their balance and coordination, such as Tai Chi, yoga, strength training, and walking. There are also several fitness tools and equipment available for balance training, including balance boards, stability balls, resistance bands, foam pads, and BOSU balls. With regular exercise and training, seniors can improve their balance and maintain their mobility to enjoy an active and independent lifestyle.

References:

  1. National Institute on Aging – Older Adults and Balance Problems
  2. Sherrington, C., Tiedemann, A., Fairhall, N., Close, J. C. T., & Lord, S. R. (2011). Exercise to prevent falls in older adults: an updated meta-analysis and best practice recommendations. New South Wales Public Health Bulletin, 22(3-4), 78–83. https://doi.org/10.1071/nb10056
  3. Tsang, W., Hui-Chan, C., (2003) Effects of Tai Chi on Joint Proprioception and Stability Limits in Elderly Subjects. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 35(12):p 1962-1971, DOI: 10.1249/01.MSS.0000099110.17311.A2

Thanks to Caroline Jones for this article.

Caroline is a physiotherapist who is passionate about using exercise as medicine and getting patients moving, especially those living with chronic conditions.

She is currently undertaking postgraduate research, studying the effects of exercise on women following treatment for gynaecological cancer and consequent lymphoedema. She also holds a Level 3 Certificate in Personal Training, owns a CrossFit box with her husband, and enjoys being a below-average runner.

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