Balance, like most other aspects of fitness, falls under the “use it or lose it” category. As we age, we tend to be less active. With that decrease in activity comes sarcopenia, a wasting of muscle that causes a drop in resting metabolic rate, increased fat weight, loss of strength, and functional abilities. A drop in activity can also decrease flexibility and balance. We notice these things, of course. We can’t do the things that we used to be able to do. So, when it comes to balance, the “What if I fall?” question that we start to ask ourselves is followed by fear and anxiety.
That fear and anxiety causes us to start to hedge our bets when it comes to balance. If you try to stand on one leg, right now, I’ll bet that you fall inward, toward the midline. Having worked with many older adults, I’ve found that this is almost universal. Why is that, you might ask. I believe (yes, this is my humble opinion, although based on years of working with the issue) that the fear of falling has started making people play it safe. If I stand balanced on one leg and lose my balance, which direction would be safer to fall? If I fall outward, I might not be able to catch myself and I could get hurt. If I fall inward, I simply catch myself with my other foot and all is right with the world. So, rather than take the chance of falling outward, I begin to pull back on my balance, never quite getting on top of the leg. This guarantees that I fall inward. The same is true in falling forward or backward. If I lose my balance and fall backward, I could really hurt myself. However, if I fall forward I’ll either be able to get a foot out in front or at least be able to break the fall with my hands. Hence, we start to lean forward… just in case.
What’s the harm in playing it safe? Well, as we start to hedge our bet, never really balancing on one leg or standing up straight as we walk, our strides become shorter as we fall inward. We’ve decreased the balance challenge, which decreases our actual ability to balance, which we start to feel, which makes us hedge our bet more and challenge our balance even less, and… the vicious cycle continues. Before you know it, your walk has turned into a sequence of short steps, falling forward and inward. You’re now doing the old person shuffle.
The good news is that you can both prevent the loss of balance and/or regain it once you’ve started to lose it. This, like other aspects of fitness, comes from regularly challenging it. As you challenge it and start to see improvement, you become more confident, with increased confidence, you feel comfortable challenging your balance more and… you’re on an upward spiral toward greater balance and functional abilities.
Next week, I’ll talk about some specific ways to safely improve your balance.