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Your Life is in the Balance

Your Life is in the Balance

I mentioned in class recently, an article I read in the Times newspaper : Your Life is in the Balance, which I thought was interesting, enough to summarise it and highlight the important points here.

Of all the perils of ageing, falling is among the most prevalent. NHS figures show a third of people over 60 have falls, and about half of over 80’s do so at least once a year. Much of this could be avoided according to a recent review by the Cochrane Bone, Joint & Muscle Trauma Group, citing exercise as a significant part in prevention.

The type of exercise you do makes a big difference. According to research by Manchester & Oxford University, muscular fitness, cardiovascular fitness, walking, dancing, resistance training etc, on its own, will not help in preventing falls. Activities incorporating standing and functional balancing moves, such as Tai Chi & some Yoga postures, as far more beneficial. This is the case for even the younger and super-fit athletes, their training regimes did not translate into better balance. Diminishing balance is partly down to poor control of the muscles we have as our brains control of movement deteriorates.

In our younger years we have about 70,000 specialised nerve cells – motor neurones – in the lower part of the spinal cord that connect with our leg muscles to control balance movement. By the age of 75, 40% of these motor neurones have been lost, resulting in lower levels of co-ordination and balance in people – regardless of general fitness levels. The only way to hold on to balance is to do specific training. If we consider that there is an age-related decline in muscles from about age 40, its important to do specific balance exercises from as early as possible.

Our ability to stay upright is down to the brain knowing the precise positions of the body, even when the eyes are closed, the brain knows what is stable and what is not. As we age, we do rely more on visual cues to help us balance. Disorders of the VESTIBULAR SYSTEM, include the eyes, inner ear and brain, can severely impair balance.

I know this from my personal experience when becoming ill after travelling overseas from a virus that left me with a vestibular disorder. This literally put me out of action for several months and I needed neuro-physio for rehabilitation of the vestibular system. As there was no such treatment available in Cumbria, I started out on a path of self-rehabilitation with all I know from the world of yoga & mindfulness to achieve ‘balance’ back into the vestibular system and into my life. It took many months and was challenging every step of the way, as each practice made me feel worse, however, overall there was a slow and gradual improvement.

I had never heard of the vestibular system and found that not many people had heard of it either. The vestibular system is a sensory system responsible for providing our brain with information about motion, head position, and spatial orientation; it also is involved with motor functions that allow us to keep our balance, stabilize our head and body during movement, and maintain posture. If you want to know a bit more in detail, have a look at this 2-minute neuroscience YouTube video.

Obesity negatively affects postural control and balance and is another major risk of falling. People with type 2 diabetes are prone to developing peripheral neuropathy, or nerve damage, in the bottom of their feet, which in turn affects the feedback messages the brain receives about balance. The loss of neural feedback is irreversible. Balance can be restored a little through specific exercises done regularly.

So, we know our ability to stay upright is down to the brain knowing the precise position of the body even when our eyes are closed. The brain knows when we are stable or not and as we age, we rely on more visual cues and that can cause problems.

Disorders of the vestibular system, including eyes, inner ear and brain, can severely impair balance, so regular sight and hearing tests are crucial.

Other health conditions can impair balance, including Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, dementia, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, cataracts, other eye diseases and depression.

Our balance is mainly affected by the efficiency of internal factors that include vision, proprioception (the sense of self-movement and body position), muscle strength, joint range of motion, reaction time and the vestibular system. All these systems decline with age. So, even more reasons why we need to keep up a daily yoga practice and to include a specific daily balance exercise.

Some ideas for your daily dose of balance:

Stand on one leg

Try to do this while you are washing the dishes, cleaning your teeth etc. When you can hold the pose for 30 seconds on each side, stand on a less stable surface, such as a couch cushion; to increase the challenge even more, do it with your eyes closed.

Yoga Balances: Daily Tree Pose – keeps you grounded too. Cat Balance also strengthens your core. Again, try with eyes closed to challenge yourself – taking care not to fall over!!!

Take a Tai Chi class

Tai Chi can help improve your stability, joint flexibility, muscle strength and confidence on your feet!

Walk heel to toe

Take 20 steps forward, heel to toe. Then walk backward, with toe to heel, in a straight line.

Do squats

Sturdy legs can help prevent a stumble from turning into a fall. To build quads, start with a simple squat: With feet hip-width apart, bend knees and hips and slowly lower yourself as if sitting in a chair behind you. Keep arms straight out, abs tight, back straight, and knees above shoelaces. Stop when thighs are parallel to the floor (or as close as you can get), then contract glutes as you stand back up. Aim for 3 sets of 10, with a 1-minute break after each set.

Practice the force

It takes muscle strength to get out of a chair, but it takes muscle force to do it quickly. "That force—the ability to get your leg in the right place in a nanosecond—is important in preventing falls. We lose muscle force faster than strength, and according to new research, it takes older women longer to build it back up. Try this move: Instead of gingerly rising from a chair, occasionally leap out of it so forcefully that you need to take a few running steps after you do so. (You can use your arms to gain momentum.) The explosiveness of that action builds power.

Take up ballet

When researchers measured muscle movements of a group of professional ballet dancers against those of people who had no ballet or gymnastics training, they found the ballet dancers moved with greater precision and grace. The reason ballet dancers balanced better was they used more muscle groups, even just when walking across a flat floor, than people who had no training. That indicates that dance training strengthens your nervous system's ability to coordinate muscle groups, so you keep your balance.

Get a good night's rest

Sleep more than 7 hours a night. Sleep deprivation slows reaction time. Researchers tracked nearly 3,000 older women and found that those who typically slept between 5 and 7 hours each night were 40% more likely to fall than those who slept longer.

Be Kind to yourself!

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