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Improving Your Balance

By Alan Williams, PT, OTR/L, ATC, CSCS

I admit it – I used to laugh at Mrs. Fletcher. In 1989, a medical alarm company named LifeCall began running a commercial featuring an elderly woman who had fallen alone in her home. Using her LifeCall alarm, she yells dramatically to a dispatcher, “I’ve fallen…and I can’t get up!” The handsome dispatcher then heroically informs her, “We’re sending help immediately, Mrs. Fletcher!” The commercial more suffered than benefitted from overplay, and as a result, Mrs. Fletcher’s famous quote quickly turned into a comedic punch line and a pop culture catchphrase, inviting parody for years afterwards.

Although unintentionally funny, LifeCall’s commercial did portray a dangerous situation many seniors face – the threat of being unable to get up after a fall, especially if no one’s around to help you. It’s a legitimate fear. Falls can result in broken bones and concussions. And even if you manage to avoid an injury from falling, if you’re unable to get up on your own, you may not be able to maintain your independence. Because of this, the best course of action is to learn how to prevent yourself from falling in the first place.

Achieving a sense of balance (called equilibrioception) is a complicated process, and not just for gymnasts and tightrope walkers. The deceptively simple act of walking must coordinate sensory input from vision, perception, and pressure with motor skills in order to put one foot in front of the other without losing our balance. If one or more of these sensory systems is damaged (as might occur with certain illnesses or head trauma) or deteriorates (as is often the case with aging), our equilibrioception is affected, and our risk for falls and injuries increases.

But there’s good news – just like with gymnasts and tightrope walkers, our sense of balance can be trained (or as is sometimes the case, retrained) to perform better. As with many things, practice makes perfect. Performing balance exercises on a daily basis will build your strength and coordination, allowing you to feel more confident on your feet. Before adding balance exercises to your daily routine, however, see your doctor about your balancing problems; they may want to perform tests to rule out a balance disorder (such as Menier’s disease) that will require specific treatments.

To perform these balance exercises, you only need a chair (but if you’re very concerned about falling, you may want a friend or relative nearby).

Front Leg Lift: Stand beside the chair, holding onto its back. Lift one leg 6-12 inches in front of you, hold for 10 seconds, then slowly lower down. Do 5-10 times, then repeat with the other leg. As your balance improves, extend the hold time for more challenge, or try letting go of the chair.
Side Leg Lift: Stand beside the chair, holding onto its back. Lift one leg 6-12 inches out to the side, hold for 10 seconds, then slowly lower down. Do 5-10 times, then repeat with the other leg. As your balance improves, extend the hold time for more challenge, or try letting go of the chair.
Ankle Raise: Stand behind the chair, holding onto its back. Slowly rise up onto your toes as high as you can go, hold for 5-10 seconds, then slowly lower down. Do 5-10 times. For more challenge, extend the hold time or use light weights.
Heel-Toe Walking: Walk along a wall for this one (you may also wish to have someone walk on your other side). As you step, place your heel directly in front of the toe of your opposite foot. See how many heel-toe steps you can make and work to increase the distance.

Don’t let a fall threaten your independence. Add these balance exercises to your daily routine, and see your physical therapist or doctor for further guidance on improving balance. Take it from Mrs. Fletcher – the best help for a fall is to prevent one from ever happening.

For your FREE Balance and Fall Risk Assessment, call 463-0022 today!