Many of us take balance for granted. But the older we get, the harder it can be to maintain—and the more dangerous losing it becomes.
Why do we struggle to stay steady as we age? Sophia Chang, MD, MPH, internist, and Chief Clinical Informatics Officer for Clover Health, explains it this way: “Signals from the nerves that give you your sense of balance, especially in your feet, have to travel all the way to your brain. As you age, those signals get slower. If you’re off-center, that signal has to go to your brain, and then your brain has to say, ‘Straighten yourself.’ If there’s a delay, you’re more likely to fall over before you can right yourself.”
Vision problems like cataracts as well as weakening of the core muscles in your torso can add to balance problems.
One in four older adults falls every year, and falling once doubles your chances of falling again, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
“Folks who fall once often develop a fear of falling,” says Kumar Dharmarajan, MD, MBA, cardiologist, geriatrician, and Chief Scientific Officer at Clover Health. “People may become afraid to go out of their homes and engage with the world. As a result, they end up being more isolated than they need to be,” which can lead to depression.
Fortunately, there are many exercises you can do to improve balance. They’re fun, easy, and as good for your mental health as they are for your physical well-being. If you stick with them, they’ll not only help prevent falls; they’ll also make daily tasks like walking up the stairs and carrying objects easier.
1. Tai Chi
Tai chi was born centuries ago in China, and its focus on slow, gentle movements and deep breathing makes it a terrific way to improve your balance.
In fact, clinical trials suggest that taking part in a four-to- six-month tai chi program can reduce your risk of falling by 25 to 60 percent, notes Dr. Peter M. Wayne, author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi. “It’s a safe and adaptable exercise that impacts many aspects of physical and mental health and well-being,” he says.
Try out a few classes online and in person to find one you like. You’ll need at least one class per week to notice a difference in your balance, and it’s a good idea to practice on your own more frequently.
“For those already doing other exercises—like walking, yoga, or weight training—tai chi can be a good mind-body, meditative complement that adds richness to other activities,” Wayne says. “For those who don’t currently exercise, tai chi has been shown to be an excellent gateway exercise, safely building strength and confidence to engage in other activities.”
Walking is another excellent way to improve your balance as well as your leg and core strength, your heart health, and your mood. The CDC recommends that adults over 65 get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity such as brisk walking. That might sound like a lot, but it breaks down to 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
Studies suggest walking is one of the most effective ways to reduce your risk of falling. Just keep in mind that uneven surfaces like trails can present tripping hazards.
If you’re not used to exercise, start gradually with indoor walking, even for 15 minutes. Or make it a goal to stand more. “The more you sit, the less practice you’re going to get balancing,” says Carol Clements, author of Better Balance for Life. “Standing turns the balance system on.”
Clements also suggests practicing walking backward and sideways in a safe environment because many falls occur when someone makes a sudden movement in an unexpected direction.
Make sure you have comfortable shoes and clothes. The National Institute on Aging recommends buying footwear with a flat, non-slip sole, good heel support, ample room for your toes, and a moderately cushioned arch. If you’re walking outdoors, drink plenty of water, use sunscreen, and wear breathable clothing.
Yoga is proven to boost stability, flexibility, and posture, which combine to do wonders for your balance.
Balance isn’t activated only when you’re standing. “It’s on your hands and knees, it’s on your side and sitting,” says Dr. Melanie Carminati, a licensed physical therapist and founder of Inspira Physical Therapy in New York City. “So, when your balance is impaired, you want to start working in all different positions.”
If yoga is too strenuous or makes you dizzy, chair yoga is an excellent, safe, low-impact option, notes Dr. Chang. A 2017 University of Wisconsin study found that chair yoga reduced falls by 50 percent among seniors who practiced it for six months. You’ll need a stable, armless chair without wheels and a floor surface that won’t allow your chair to slide.
Find free tutorial videos for standing and chair yoga online, or look for local classes. Water yoga is yet another option that’s appealing because it’s easy on your joints.
Dancing has been hailed as the kale of exercise. Studies show that it’s not only good for balance, strength, and flexibility but can also keep your mind sharp!
One German study, reported in 2017 in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, analyzed brain scans of two groups of older adults—some who danced and some who did interval training. While both activities increased the size of the participants’ hippocampus (the part of the brain that controls learning and memory), only dance improved their balance.
It doesn’t matter what form of dance you try, whether jazzercise, line dancing, or ballet. Stick to low-impact dance, however, to avoid injury, advises Dr. Chang.
Slower movements are safest, particularly for beginners, as is individual dance rather than partner dancing.
Seated dancing is even an option! Move your hands and legs to the music as you remain in your chair.
3 Smart Tips For Your Balance
- Always tell your doctor if you’ve fallen. “Doctors don’t always ask their patients if they’ve fallen, and we know that patients may not share that information,” explains Kumar Dharmarajan, MD, MBA, cardiologist, geriatrician, and Chief Scientific Officer at Clover Health. Your doctor can help you identify factors that could be affecting your balance, so never be shy to share about a trip or a fall.
- Get your vision checked regularly. “One of the main ways your brain knows you’re off balance is through visual cues,” says Sophia Chang, MD, MPH, internist, and Chief Clinical Informatics Officer for Clover Health. “And our eyesight is not as good as we age. When you start losing the visual cues, your brain doesn’t get the signal to center your body.” You’re also less likely to see objects on the floor or ground that could trip you. Learn about Clover Health's vision coverage.
- Consider your ears. Your inner ear is another key to balance, so talk to your doctor if you’re having issues with your ears or hearing. Problems like Ménière’s disease, infections related to the flu, and complications from shingles can impact your balance. Learn about Clover Health's hearing benefits.
Move For Your Memory
Exercise is good for your body—and your brain! Research out of UT Southwestern suggests that when older adults follow a moderate aerobic exercise program for a year, their memory and decision-making skills improve.
Exercise gets your heart pumping, which boosts blood flow and oxygen to your brain. The greater your physical activity and oxygen consumption, the greater benefit to your brain.
Earlier studies have linked lower-than-normal blood flow to the brain with mild cognitive impairment (trouble remembering, concentrating, and learning new things), which can lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Authors of the study, published in the May 2020 issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, acknowledge that additional studies are needed. Still, these findings give you a good reason to get moving this summer.
Remember: It’s always a good idea to check with your doctor before starting any new exercise—or dance—routine. This is especially important if you have chronic conditions.
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This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of Clover Living magazine.