The best predictor of taking a fall in old age comes from one’s inability to balance now. That being said, there are always exceptions, but if you can’t balance, the likelihood that you will fall in old age increases exponentially. Why are hip replacement surgeries the most popular among senior citizens? Balance is to blame. Many factors are involved in balance, but the most significant variable is the ability to stabilize your pelvis as you move since it is something you can improve– no matter what age.
Where does balance come from?
The nervous system houses the sensory systems, 3 types of which have a contributing variable stake in determining the ease in your ability to balance. The first system is the vestibular system: to maintain equilibrium, the vestibular system helps you walk upright. If you didn’t have it, you might feel like you just got off a twisty wild ride at the fair day after day. The sense of balance this system gives comes from a labyrinth-looking maze of tubes found within your left inner ear. The second system is the somatosensory system: perceiving something as hot, cold, smooth or rough relies on this system, but it determines much more than just tactual perception. It is because of your somatosensory system that your body can “map-out” your size in space. People who are blind depend on this system to help them “see” the end of the sidewalk, reach for something that “feels” like it’s within close proximity, etc. System number three is the visual system: the ability to see does play a role in your ability to balance, but keep in mind it is good to challenge yourself and not rely on your eyes too much in this case.
Just because these systems contribute to balance does not mean they are the dice that determine the play. It’s actually up to you. If you are lacking in one area especially, then you will have to work harder to compensate.
Here’s how to compensate and improve: CORE CORE CORE. And more core. The more core strength you have, the easier anything will come: balances, inversions, backbends, walking, good posture, sitting, breathing, living. PERIOD. There are 6 main muscle groups that make up your core: the obliques, the abductors, the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, quadratus lumborum and the psoas major. Besides their individual functions to aid in movement, having a strong core enables you to stabilize your pelvis. Working on just the abs, for example, will not help you build your core, since the core really consists of all the muscle groups working together. Think of the core in the same way you would think of the trunk of a tree: the entire trunk is responsible for holding up the branches; if one side is hollow or weak, the tree could snap. Using this metaphor: the abs are only the bark, there are muscles buried beneath them that are just as important to target, as well as those in your back and all the way around your midline from the inside out.
Try these core-strengthening exercises I’ve chosen because they incorporate balancing and target all muscle groups:
1. Plank: From a table top position= with hands flat on the mat and fingers spread wide, your wrists should be stacked under your elbows and shoulders, your knees aligned under your hips with your toes curled and your spine in a neutral position. Using your core, step just your feet back and bring your legs together. Relax your head and neck while pulling your shoulder blades back and scooping your tailbone under so that your navel pulls in toward your spine. This slight adjustment allows for you to fully engage your core. Keep your thighs strong and engaged by slightly inwardly rotating them toward the midline. Remember to breath. As an option to modify, try plank with the top of your knees on the mat, keeping your torso long and your spine straight. Stay here or…
A. Tiger Plank: From plank, inhale your right foot up off the mat and bring the knee of your right leg along the side of your body to meet your right elbow or shoulder. Then switch legs, remembering to exhale as you bring your knee forward and inhale to step it back.
B. Plank to Chaturanga (low pushup): From plank, with your arms straight, slightly shift forward by pressing the mat away with your toes. Stop moving your torso forward when the palms of your hands fall below your ribs. Next, as you begin to lower, your arms should gently graze the sides of your rib cage, stopping when your elbows form a 90 degree angle (as pictured). Try to hold the pose as you check the alignment: your stomach and chest remain lifted off the mat, move your shoulders away from your ears, and scoop your tailbone to keep your spine long and core engaged. Rise back to plank and repeat (chaturanga push-up).
C. Hurdler’s Pose: From Chaturanga (with elbows bent at 90 degrees), hook your left elbow into your left ribs, and bring your right knee to the top of your right elbow. Using your core, try to balance and hold the pose by lengthening your neck and placing your gaze at a focal point about a foot in front of you. Strengthen your back leg as you lift it off the ground behind you to slowly shift your entire body weight into your hands. Most of your weight should be balanced between the thumb and index fingers especially, but also distribute weight into all ten finger tips as well (this is easiest if your fingers are spread wide). Balancing your weight in the finger tips this way will protect the wrists and help you to find/maintain the arm balance safely. Remember to breath in this posture.
D. Side Plank: From Plank, take your right hand to the center of the mat and roll over your toes to the outside edge of the right foot, flexing both feet and stacking the left on top. Send your left fingers to the sky and pull your hips up and away from the mat. Always remember to take side plank on both sides.
i. As an option, (from this side plank position described above) bend your left arm at the elbow and bring the fingertips of your left hand to meet the top of your left ear. On an exhale, shift your gaze toward your mat as you move your bent left elbow to meet your right elbow, which remains straight. This movement will work your obliques. Remember to inhale as you rise back to side plank, bringing your left elbow back up to the sky. Be mindful to keep your hips stacked, moving only your upper torso to bring the elbows to touch (side crunches in plank).
2. L-Shape Jumps: Walk over to a wall and take a seat with your back against it and your legs extended in front of you. Mark the spot your feet meet the ground to measure where to then place your hands. Stand up, and place your hands in that measured spot on the floor in front of the wall, making sure your wrists are parallel to the wall and your fingers are spread wide in the opposite direction of the wall. Bend at the knees and send your feet to the wall behind you on an exhale; try your best to create an upside down “L” shape with your body. Your shoulders should be stacked over your elbows and wrists, with your ribs tucked in. Aim to bring your ankles parallel to your hips. Then inhale to release your feet back to the ground. Repeat at least 3 times, with one breath per movement. Stay here or…
A. Handstand: Either use the wall or without. Plant and your hands parallel, shoulder width distance apart. Walk as close as you can to your hands from downward facing dog. Place your gaze between you palms and keep it there (this may feel awkward, but it will help stabilize your upper body as you jump up). On an exhale, send one leg up and then the other OR raise both legs together. Scoop your tailbone to engage your core and squeeze your thighs together, which will help you balance.
3. Chair Pose: From a forward fold, root down through your feet and inhale to sweep your arms up to the sky, bend at the knees and sink into your hips (sitting into an imaginary chair). Scoop your tailbone under to keep your spine long. Look down at your feet and make sure you can see your toes. Try to keep space between your shoulders and neck. Remain for a few breaths. Stay here or…
A. Chair + Twist: Bring your hands to Namaste and twist to the right, hooking the back of your upper left arm on the outside thigh of your right leg. Take a look at your knees in this variation to make sure they remain evenly aligned. Then switch sides.
B. Chair + Eagle: From chair, wrap your right arm around your left to bring your palms together. Wrap your right leg around your left and continue to sink into your chair further with all your weight in your right foot. Then switch.
i. As an option, bow forward on an exhale, bringing your elbows to your knees. Inhale raise your arms while in the seated eagle twist. Repeat.
C. Bakasana (crane or crow): From chair, plant your hands on the mat in front of you, bend your elbows slightly and bring the top of your knees to the back of your upper arms. Come onto your toes and then begin to transfer your weight into your hands, slowly lifting your toes off the mat as you balance by engaging your core.
i. As an option, begin to straighten your arms, which will cause you to engage your core even more in order to keep your legs lifted.
4. Balance Challenge: From a standing position with your hands at heart center, keep your eyes closed. Then, place your right foot in front of your left, meeting your left toes with your right heel. Stay here for as long as you can and then switch. This challenge is a good way to measure your ability to balance.