By Madeline Sharples
Although my husband has almost fully recovered from his hip replacement surgery, he has recently been walking with a distinct stagger – like he’s struggling to keep his balance. In fact I got so worried about it I brought up the c- word. No, not cancer. The other dreaded c-word: Cane. Would he consider walking with a cane, I asked.
And although he stayed his usual calm self, he told me in no uncertain terms that he would not consider it – at least not until he fell. Not a good plan, in my estimation.
As a result I began to think about the importance of balance – especially as we age.
My mother in her old age – late eighties and early nineties – fell all the time. She wouldn’t use a cane either. Or if she took a cane with her, she’d wear the handle on her wrist like a bracelet. At first she did little damage, but her last fall resulted in a broken hip. She died a year and a half later at the age of 94.
The fear of falling, which becomes more pronounced as we age, is very real. It’s not only undignified, it can cause serious fractures and internal injuries. Therefore, our body’s ability to right itself and regain control against gravity depends many times on our muscles’ abilities to bring us back to the proper center of gravity. If you combine weak muscles with a lack of balancing practice, you have a perfect prescription for injury. The opposite of this equation is equally true. Practicing balancing poses and developing strong muscles that can pull you back to center after a stumble, misstep or accidental push, can spell the difference between falling or not falling. This is a major advantage of staying strong. No body wants to fall. The fear of falling, which can be so crippling psychologically, causes older people to lack the courage and confidence to try anything new or different.
Here are some suggestions for staying in balance. First and foremost have some kind of strength training program using free or machine weights and doing pushups. You can train with weights either seated or standing, and you can even do pushups against the wall.
Next, maintain good posture – the the ability to hold your head up, shoulders relaxed, with your back and tummy holding everything where it should be without you needing to think about it. It’s a wonderful gift and within the reach of everyone. Plus, it feels so good. You can nag yourself 20 times a day to stand up tall, but if you don’t have muscle strength it’s too exhausting. If your muscles are too weak to hold you there, your posture will revert right back to the slumped over, caved in stance it always had. This is not only unattractive; it is unhealthy, potentially dangerous and definitely detrimental to our self-esteem and sense of control over your own body.
All it takes is practice. Squeeze your glutes, open up your sagging chest, get those shoulders down from your earlobes, and just stand in alignment on your two feet. Try not to lean over to one side or the other. Start out with your feet as far apart as is comfortable, then as you get more and more steady, bring your feet closer together.
Then try some walking lunges. Take a short step and follow with your other leg raising it in front of you while keeping your knee bent and your foot flexed. Put that foot down and repeat with your other leg.
Once you’ve managed to maintain good posture and performed some walking lunges practice standing on one foot. Focus on something in front of you and don’t think about anything else. Count. Don’t worry if you have to step down with your other foot for a second or grab on to something. Just try again. Pretty soon you’ll be counting to ten, twenty, thirty. You can even try this while brushing your teeth. Focus on your face in the mirror.
Next practice standing on one foot on a foam pad and stand as above. It’s a lot more challenging but a lot more rewarding.
A couple of other balance exercises I do are bending one leg at the knee and grabbing that foot and holding it behind me so it touches my butt. As I stand on one leg, I raise the opposite arm as high as I can. I comfortably do Steps 1 and 2 of this pose (you’ll see the various steps of this pose by clicking the link) and slowly inching toward Step 3.
I also do the Yoga tree pose. That is placing one foot against the opposite thigh. I first hold my leg there with my hands, and then gradually raise my hands above my head. It sounds daunting, but with practice you’ll get it. Just remember to focus on something in front of you and count. I almost get into a meditative state when I do my balance practice.
And though I haven’t tried it yet, I understand the next step is to close your eyes throughout these moves. That’s my next challenge.
I know these exercises might seem intimidating at first, but they are well worth the effort. If you do the work to save yourself from falling, you’ll enjoy your aging years much, much more.
Madeline is the author of Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide (Dream of Things) and Blue-Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs (New Horizon Press). She co-edits The Great American Poetry Show anthology series and wrote the poetry for The Emerging Goddessphotography book. See more at http://www.MadelineSharples.com