Balance, perhaps more than anything else, is essential to a happy and satisfying life. We need balance in everything from our emotions to our daily responsibilities; otherwise, we get stressed out, we despair, and we feel altogether out of sorts. But physical balance in particular, while not nearly as emphasized as the inner kind, is an integral part of a healthy life as well. When you’re young, the idea of not being able to stand up or walk without falling seems far-fetched. However, that’s a risk that grows increasingly more likely the older you get and the longer you go without making good physical balance a priority. So how does achieving balance now affect well-being later? And how do you go about acquiring it in the first place?
“Help! I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up!”
Part of the aging process in humans includes the gradual loss of muscle strength, vision, sensory perception, and hearing—all things that contribute to our ability to balance. As a result, falling is a common and alarming problem among older adults. According to the CDC, one out of three Americans who are at least sixty-five years old will fall over the course of a year. Younger people might be able to pick themselves up and dust themselves off after falling, but for older folks, it can be debilitating. Falls are the primary cause of injury deaths among the sixty-five-and-older crowd; in fact, more than eighteen thousand people in this demographic died because of falling-related injuries in 2007. And the danger only increases with age—adults ages eighty-five and up who’ve fallen are four times more likely to get put in a nursing home for a year or longer.
However, the elderly aren’t the only ones who should be concerned about balance. “It really doesn’t matter how old you are,” says Brooke Schreiner, a certified personal trainer with 24 Hour Fitness in San Leandro, California. “I’ve trained fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds who have terrible balance.” She works with clients on strength training, specifically when it comes to the core, which aids with balance. Her objective is to develop muscles past their normal movements, such as doing bicep curls on a BOSU ball or push-ups on a stability ball. The point is to, as Brooke puts it, “trick your body into progressing.” If you start working toward and maintaining good balance earlier in life with similar strength-training exercises, you’ll be that much more prepared for the natural deterioration of physical abilities that comes with age. A study described in the November 2007 issue of the Mayo Clinic Health Letter showed that older adults who exercise regularly throughout their lives have better balance than the rest of those tested.
If you don’t have a regular exercise regimen, there’s still hope. Adults who started exercising regularly only after retiring had balance skills almost on par with those of the lifelong exercisers. (On the flip side, those who had once exercised but had then stopped were almost as bad at balancing as the ones who had never started.) But past studies have shown that, even among adults over seventy years old, it’s not too late to start a balance-improvement program and get results. For example, a 2001 study published in the British Medical Journal showed that both men and women ages seventy-five and older had a 46 percent reduction in falls over a year’s time after working with a trained nurse.
Afraid to Fall? Get on the Ball
How do you know if you’ve got good balance or not? RealAge  offers a balance test on its website that you can try with a partner. The partner times how long you can stand barefoot on a flat, stable surface with your eyes closed and one foot lifted about half a foot above the floor. (The knee should be at about a forty-five-degree angle.) Depending on how many seconds you hold the pose—and, ultimately, how well you can balance—that tells you your “real age.” But whether that test tells you you’re twenty-five or sixty-five, making good balance more of a priority is always a good idea. Even active types probably neglect basic balancing moves (unless they practice yoga, too) simply because people tend to emphasize cardiovascular exercise more.
Brooke starts off her beginner clients with simple exercises, like what she calls “step up to balance.” She has them step onto a plyometric box (about the height of two house stairs) and then bring one of their knees up to a ninety-degree angle for a few seconds, switching off standing legs for twelve repetitions. Another way to work on balance is to walk heel to toe, as if walking on a straight line, or even to simply stand on one foot and switch off during tasks like brushing your teeth or talking on the phone. Tai chi, a gentle type of Chinese martial arts that incorporates slow, focused movements meant to bring together body and mind, has also been shown to improve balance significantly among older adults.
Really, any kind of exercise that gets you moving in a coordinated way, from walking to weightlifting, can help with balance—being active and building stronger muscles are what make a world of difference. Getting older can be hard enough without having to worry about the likelihood of falling and seriously injuring yourself. But by recognizing good balance as a goal worth striving for, and by practicing movements like these regularly, it’s possible to transition into old age with peace of mind and steadiness of foot.