Better balance is achievable…and the benefits are endless!
Good balance isn’t something you’re born with-or without. It’s an achievable goal to strive for at any age, and it improves with practice. Most fitness professionals would agree that better balance is an attribute that many of their students and clients think they don’t have…and wish they did.
There’s also a growing consensus in the health and wellness community that balance is crucial to overall well-being and quality of life. This has led to an increase in the number and scope of classes and activities offered to promote better balance, especially for older adults.
Many of these activities focus on fall prevention and reducing the risk and fear of falling. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “each year, one in every three adults ages 65 or older falls and 2 million are treated in emergency departments for fall-related injuries. And the risk of falling increases with each decade of life. The long-term consequences of fall injuries, such as hip fractures and traumatic brain injuries (TBI), can impact the health and independence of older adults. Thankfully, falls are not an inevitable part of aging. In fact, many falls can be prevented.”
To that end, many community organizations offer evidence-based fall prevention classes to support the goal of aging independently. The term “evidence-based” means participants’ abilities are measured before and after the classes, helping to increase confidence and ensuring the use of safe and proper techniques by both participants and instructors.
One widely acclaimed, evidence-based fall prevention program is “Moving for Better Balance,” offered several times each year at the Apex Center, 13150 W. 72nd Avenue. Using principles and movements based on Yang style t’ai chi, students work on improving balance, agility and coordination. The slow, mindful movements also help with strength, confidence and body awareness.
Mindful movement is as simple as paying attention—a vital part of fall prevention strategy. Many older adults who have experienced a fall, regardless of the individual situation, cite an instant of inattentiveness or hurry as the cause of a fall or close call.
Terrell Goodson, coordinator of the Apex Center’s group exercise program, stresses that notion of taking your time with all movements, however routine, to help improve balance and minimize fall risk. Even with something as simple as shifting the weight while walking, mindful movement is a good habit to cultivate. “Take your time and settle on one leg totally before the next step,” she advises. Standing on both feet is easier, but you can always improve your connection to the ground. “Think about your base of support, and stand on both feet evenly without placing them too close together.”
Besides the Moving for Better Balance classes, the Apex Center offers other group exercise classes to assist with balance. The Ball and Balance class, for example, uses stability balls to build core strength and the mind/body connection. “The stability ball addresses many different ways to get feedback from the body and build neural pathways.”
This is called proprioception, or knowing where the body is in space—another attribute that’s vital to good balance. Proprioception is what helps you do something like step off a curb. That sounds simple, but for someone recovering from a recent fall-related injury, it can be scary. Fear then triggers uncertainty and tension and that increases the fall risk. “To leverage the fear factor, take baby steps,” Terrell suggests. “See the results of each small gain and stick with it. Slowly build strength and confidence, focus on progression and take note of how the class or program is improving other aspects of your life.”
Because balance relates to almost everything else, improving the balance has a lasting, positive effect. “When you begin to understand the body and feel the difference, that’s your motivation to come back and keep working on it,” Terrell says.
That’s part of what makes the Apex Center’s Moving for Better Balance class effective and popular. Instructor Maureen Hart carefully works with students to break down each individual movement in detail, then they put the sequence together in the characteristic t’ai chi flow. In addition, she describes the reasons for each movement: how and why the muscles and joints move the way they do, and why each sequence helps with balance, stability and strength. Students are also assessed at the beginning and end of session to measure their progress.
At Apex PRD’s Community Recreation Center, 6842 Wadsworth Blvd., Lynn Weis coordinates the adult fitness program. Every day she sees how better balance keeps people in their homes longer and staying active longer. Her advice on balance/fall prevention strategies: “Don’t wait too long to start working on your balance!”
All the drop-in classes at the Community Recreation Center have an element of balance, and classes there are geared toward many different activity levels. One of the most popular and well-attended classes, SilverSneakers Yoga, routinely attracts 75 to 80 students. Lynn sees these numbers as a testament to the participants’ growing interest in strength, flexibility and balance.
CRC also offers ‘N Balance, an evidence-based fall prevention class, several times a year. This class features practice exercises and movements to strengthen their core balance and to overcome the fear of falling. “Many people have had a scare because of an “almost” fall, and that brings them to the class,” Lynn said.
As the class progresses, students have homework and ongoing practice. Instructors teach the students how to avoid falls, how to recover if they do fall, and how to get up. These strategies increase safety and decrease fear, and the assessments and practice measure progress and help participants live and move safer.
Find information on the upcoming ‘N Balance classes, online. For more on Coalition for Older Adult Wellness evidence-based fall prevention/balance improvement classes at medical facilities and adult communities throughout the Denver metro area, visit coaw.org.
The CRC also offers traditional t’ai chi classes. Patti Douglas, who teaches the T’ai Chi for Arthritis class, says “The benefits are monumental. T’ai chi is more gentle than many other exercise classes, and students learn a different approach to movement.”
Patti, who has taught yoga for 30 years, is relatively new to t’ai chi. She also praises its appeal and benefits for all different situations. “The successes are different for each person. Some people are recovering from an injury and want to start moving better, others want more flexibility and better balance.”
She stresses the importance of mindful weight shifting when working on balance. “Pay attention, look where you are going and step out with an empty leg,” she says. Patti also expresses an interest and enthusiasm for the mind/body connection. “Learning something new helps build new brain connections and build body awareness. That doesn’t just stay in the class, and it shouldn’t.”
In Patti’s t’ai chi class, the practice incorporates other aspects related to balance, such as economy of movement. I encourage students to move within their sphere and not step out too far. I stress the idea that in terms of muscle and movement, less is more.” Many t’ai chi movements are based on observations of the natural world and animals, which can also enhance balance. For example, “I tell people to move like cats, with soft quiet feet. I ask them to set the foot down as quietly as possible, which helps balance and also brings in the auditory realm.”
With all the activities to improve balance at Apex Park and Recreation District and elsewhere in the community, there’s bound to be an opportunity for you to have fun, build camaraderie and last but not least – practice and repetition for greater confidence. Don’t wait!