The Loss of Balance Fear Spiral

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.

tight-rope

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.

 

Building Muscle After 50

In a recent article in the New York Times, Can You Regain Muscle After 60, author Gretchen Reynolds discussed research done in which “men and women in their 60s and 70s who began supervised weight training developed muscles that were as large and strong as those of your average 40-year-old.” This is important because what keeps us able to do what we want as we age, is muscle. Strength, power, and your resting metabolism depend on gaining, or at least not losing, muscle. So, how do we do that?

karl-on-deck

Metal sculptor, Karl Stirner at 82 years old

Let’s start with the idea of not losing what you have. In a previous post, How Many Years Do You Have Left?, I mentioned sarcopenia, or the physical declines that come with muscle loss. Sarcopenia is predominantly caused by a lessening of physical activity as we get older. One of my favorite examples of someone not slowing down as he got older, was my father-in-law, Karl Stirner. Karl was a metal sculptor (he passed early in 2016 at the age of 92). He hauled iron around on a daily basis until he was almost 90. His strength always amazed me. That continued physical activity kept him young and physically capable of living life on his terms. The same can be true for you. If you are physically active, stay that way. If you’ve had a physical job all of your life and you find yourself retiring or changing jobs, find other ways (maybe more fun ways) of staying active.

What if you’ve never been never been active or worked out or it’s just been a really long time since you have? You need to start to build muscle. The best way to do this is resistance training. This includes free weights, machines, tubing, body weight, etc. As long as the exercise is challenging to you within a general repetition range of 8 – 20 repetitions, it’s going to help you build strength and muscle. However, start small, start light. With the prospect of doing this for the rest of our lives, we can take our time building the intensity and the volume of the program. This will help minimize the risk of injuries. I will often only give 5 or 6 exercises to someone just starting out. One set of 12 repetitions for each of the exercises on day one and then see how they feel the next day. If they are not too sore and have no issues, we can start to progress the program. Ultimately, the program has to become very challenging or you won’t have enough stimulus to build muscle.

Finally, you need to support muscle growth by eating enough calories and enough of those calories coming from protein. That will be my next post. In the mean time, know that you can (and should) build strength and muscle no matter what your age.  If you’re doing it, keep doing it. If you’re not, get started. It’s never too late.

Please, if you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments.