Balance - An Often Overlooked Key To Wellbeing
IF Insider No. 50
In our last issue (IF Insider No. 49) we looked at beans and specifically at some of the controversial claims made by one physician that beans are basically poison! In this issue, we are going to bring your attention to an area of well-being that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. That area is balance.
For our premium subscribers, in this week’s Research Spotlight, we are going to look at a study that examined the effect of qigong (which is the foundation of tai chi) on mobility and balance in older adults.
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Why Balance Is An Important Key to Your Physical and Emotional Wellbeing
You probably hear a lot about leading a balanced life. When most people run across this phrase they immediately think about trying to divide what energy and time they have among play, work, and emotional and spiritual areas. And yes, that’s all really important. But today I am talking a bit more literally about balance...and that is about your physical agility and balance.
What this means is your ability to move quickly and easily and without hesitation and also to be able to recognize and maintain your body position in space in relation to other persons or objects. As you get older, your physical agility and balance will generally begin to decline, and with that downward slope comes a very, very real risk to your well-being and health.
If you do fall, you are very likely to become fearful of falling again. This fear, unless overcome by strengthening your musculature and improving your balance, is only going to get worse as you age. The fear of falling causes you to withdraw from activities that you once enjoyed, and you are at a much greater risk of isolation and depression. Plus, it puts you in a negative feedback loop where your fear of falling can cause you to restrict your activities, which reduces strength and balance, increasing fear. Yikes!
A lot of people, when they read or hear about problems with balance, think only of people who are quite elderly. And yes, of course, this is a real problem with older people as a decrease in balance really increases their risk of a serious fall which often causes a hip fracture or even a head injury. For all too many people, a serious fall like that can mean at worst, the beginning of the end or at best ending up in a nursing home or assisted living facility or facing a long and painful rehabilitation.
But don’t think you are off the hook if you are not elderly. Your physical strength, agility, and balance all begin to decline at mid-life. So how can you tell if your balance is not up to snuff? I’ll let you in on a simple test you can do at home in just a minute. But first, let’s look at what advice Harvard Health has about improving your balance.
According to Harvard Health Publishing in their digital column, Healthbeat, walking is a great way to improve your balance, along with strength training and specific balance workouts. Why walking? For one, walking helps to build your lower body strength, which is an important element in preventing falls.
Plus, walking is a very safe exercise for almost anyone and also counts toward improving your aerobic fitness. But it’s the minutes that count, not the miles. Harvard Health says you should aim to work up to 150 minutes of walking per week to achieve maximum benefit.
Alright, back to how to test your balance.
You will need a stopwatch. You probably already have one on your smartphone or you can use a watch or clock with a minute hand. This is a really simple test. All you do is to time yourself for a full minute as you try to stand without any other support while balanced on one foot.
If you don’t make it to a full sixty seconds don’t be too dismayed. A study published in the Journals of Gerontology found that people who were in their 30s or 40s had, when tested, an average time of around a minute but people who were in their 50s did worse...only being able to stand balanced on one foot for 45 seconds.
And those over 50? Worse still. Folks in their 60s were able to stand on average for about 40 seconds and people in their 70s stood for 27 seconds. Those in their 80s and older could only balance for about 12 seconds.
Your ability to balance is not simply a matter of pure muscular strength but also includes a complex mix of factors, such as your vision, sense of touch, flexibility, and even your mental functioning.
Here are a few ways you can improve your balance and hopefully lessen your risk of future problems. But please note that if you already have balance problems, or have taken a fall, please consult with your medical practitioner before you attempt any of these.
One of the first things you can do is to do the same thing you did in the balance test, Practice standing on one foot while attempting to increase the length of time you can remain balanced on one foot. You can do this anytime you have a spare moment while standing in line waiting or at the sink doing the dishes or even while brushing your teeth.
To start, if you are at all unsteady, you may want to hold on to the back of a chair or other surface for support. As your capacity increases, try closing your eyes. Also, be sure to switch feet from time to time, as most of us have a dominant side we revert to without thinking.
The next thing you can do is whenever you get up out of a chair, try not to use your hands to support you or to push you up. This may take some doing until you get used to it. The ability to get up from a chair without using your hands is a test of strength as well as balance.
Then, try to walk a virtual balance beam. You can do this by walking heel to toe in a straight line in your house, like down a hallway.
And finally, consider taking up a specific practice, such as tai chi and/or yoga. Both of these ancient modalities have been proven to improve balance and they both have other benefits, such as increasing flexibility as well.
Don’t wait before you have a fall to begin working on your balance. The time to start is now, whatever your age!
Katherine S. Hall, Harvey J. Cohen, Carl F. Pieper, Gerda G. Fillenbaum, William E. Kraus, Kim M. Huffman, Melissa A. Cornish, Andrew Shiloh, Christy Flynn, Richard Sloane, L. Kristin Newby, Miriam C. Morey, Physical Performance Across the Adult Life Span: Correlates With Age and Physical Activity, The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, Volume 72, Issue 4, 1 April 2017, Pages 572–578, https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/glw120
Why It Matters
Being on a tightrope is living; everything else is waiting.
~ Karl Wallenda (1905 - 1978) - High wire artist and founder of the Flying Wallendas, his troupe performed daredevil circus acts and dangerous stunts, often without a safety net. In 1970, when he was 65, Wallenda walked across a high wire stretched across the Tallulah Gorge, formed by the Tallulah River in Georgia. Some 30,000 people watched him perform two headstands as he traversed the quarter-mile-wide gap. He died at age 73, when he fell during an attempted walk between the two towers of the ten-story Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
What We Are Reading 📚
With each issue, we bring you a short blurb on what we are currently reading or watching, including books, articles, podcasts, videos, movies, and research papers of value.
Denise - I just finished reading Nick Offerman’s new book, Where the Deer and the Antelope Play: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside. It’s both a humorous and serious look at how Americans view and relate to nature, the land and farming, both historically and in the present.
From the blurb: “… three quests inspired some "deep-ish thinking from Nick, about the history and philosophy of our relationship with nature in our national parks, in our farming, and in our backyards; what we mean when we talk about conservation; and the importance of outdoor recreation, all subjects very close to Nick's heart.”
Ellen - I have just begun the audio version of Edmund Richardson’s The King’s Shadow: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Deadly Quest for the Lost City of Alexandria.
The remains of the city of Alexandria are buried somewhere beneath the plains of Afghanistan. One of the greatest cities of the Hellenistic world, Alexandria was a meeting point between East and West and a center of learning. Then it vanished.
In 1833, Charles Masson, spy, archaeologist, deserter, and nineteenth-century traveler found the location of the city once more. This is his story, a thrilling and sometimes harrowing journey “…through nineteenth-century India and Afghanistan, a world of espionage and dreamers, murder, betrayal, and boundless hope.”
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