Keeping Your Balance in Unsettling Times

Albert Einstein may have said it best: “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.”

And to keep moving, I might add, you’ve got to keep your balance! Without it, you’re at risk for falls. One in four people age 65 and older fall each year. And one in five of those falls causes serious harm such as broken bones or a head injury.

Research shows that exercise focused on building strength and balance can reduce your risk. But what if all your routines for getting physical activity are suddenly interrupted? That’s what happened to many when the coronavirus pandemic started several months ago. Most indoor exercise classes were canceled. And even casual activities such as shopping became curtailed. Walking outdoors is a great alternative. But with the weather changing, some people may be reluctant to brave the elements.

So, what can you do right now to improve fitness and balance? I asked my colleague Ben Balderson, a research psychologist who’s working on a project to help people ages 70 to 89 to develop healthy behaviors. These include setting goals for increased physical activity.

“We start by helping people set weekly goals based on what they personally find enjoyable and doable,” Balderson says, “Then we help them adjust those plans as they do or don’t meet their goals.” The idea is to keep trying new things to find what works for you.

Some folks are discovering the benefits of remote exercise sessions for older adults. Programs such as “Sit and Be Fit” offer classes on PBS television stations, on DVD, and online. You may also find online instruction for yoga, Pilates, and Tai chi, the ancient Chinese practice of continuous, controlled, and slow movement has proven to improve physical and mental well-being.

Simply reminding yourself to sit less can be a boon. A study conducted among older Kaiser Permanente Washington members with obesity found that wrist-worn alarms worked well to inspire people to take breaks from sitting several times a day. So, you might try setting an hourly timer on your kitchen stove or mobile phone to see if an alert could work for you. When the alarm rings, take a few minutes to walk around inside or outside your home—building strength, balance, and stamina.

To avoid losing your balance, always remember to wear proper shoes or slippers. Studies show the best shoes for avoiding falls are those with laces or Velcro fasteners, adequate heel support, and non-slip soles—in other words, “tennis shoes.” You’re at highest risk when you walk barefoot or in stocking feet—even indoors.

Be careful if you’re taking prescription drugs for high blood pressure or chronic pain. Many cause balance problems. Also implicated in falls are antidepressants, anti-psychotics, anti-anxiety, and sleeping medications, especially benzodiazepine tranquilizers.

Get rid of trip hazards in your home—things like loose electrical cords and throw rugs. Avoid slippery floors and icy surfaces. And make sure rooms and passageways are well lit. Use night lights if necessary.

Many falls happen in the bathroom, so install and use handholds. Get a shower chair if you’re unsteady standing for long periods. Keep a pair of slippers beside your bed to wear when nature calls.

Although life may seem unsettling at times, there’s much we can do to remain balanced, healthy, and resilient.

Dr. Eric B. Larson is a senior scientist at Kaiser Permanente Washington and author of Enlightened Aging: Building Resilience for a Long, Active Life (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

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