Balance, the ability to control and maintain one’s body position whether in motion or when still, often deteriorates as people grow older. Last month, I addressed the topic of declining balance
and the benefits of balance and strength training to improve balance. Some elders, especially those individuals who are frail and/or have health conditions, may find strength training that includes lifting weights undesirable or not even feasible. Therefore, I suggested yoga, tai chi (TIE-chee) and dancing as alternative forms of exercise to enhance balance. Now let’s take a look at the potential benefits of all three.
Yoga, an eastern discipline developed in India more than 5000 years ago, is a form of exercise or physical activity that consists of a series of postures and gentle movements. With respect to balance, yoga strengthens the muscles around the ankle and hip joint, improving the range of motion and flexibility of these joints. This helps the body remain stable and balanced. Other benefits of better balance include:
• Greater confidence, especially in being able to accomplish everyday activities.
• Less fear of falling; more confidence in going about one’s daily activities.
• Greater ability to transfer from the floor, which is important for elders who experience difficultly getting up from the floor after falling.
There are many yoga postures and movements to choose from. In elders with disability or limited balance it’s best to begin slow; start with sitting postures. Once individuals feel comfortable and more stable, they can move up to typical standing postures with the support of a wall or chair to increase safety and avoid the chances of falling.
Another good exercise for balance is tai chi. Originally developed in ancient China for self-defense, tai chi is a self-paced form of exercise and stretching. To do tai chi, the individual performs a series of rhythmic postures or movements in a slow, graceful manner. Each posture flows into the next without pause, ensuring that the body is in constant motion. Tai chi improves balance by strengthening the muscles and joints surrounding the hips and legs.
Most forms of tai chi are suitable for elders regardless of age or physical ability; tai chi emphasizes technique over strength. Because tai chi is low impact, it may be especially appropriate for elders unaccustomed to exercise. In addition, many elders find tai chi attractive because it's inexpensive (it requires no special equipment) and can be done either alone or in a group.
All types of dance, including ballroom dancing (rumba, foxtrot, salsa, waltz, etc) and even ‘rock n roll’, practiced on a regular basis (about twice-weekly) are excellent forms of exercise to regain balance. Dancing causes individual muscles to work against some form of resistance thereby increasing muscular strength and agility, and thereby, improving balance.
Benefits of dance-based exercise include:
• Improvements in walking.
• Increased self confidence in balance, especially in accomplishing everyday activities. Balance confidence is also linked to a decrease in ‘fear of falling’.
• Improvements in a number of conditions associated with falling (including arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and depression). Dance grouped with tai chi is often used to improve joint mobility and balance in elders with arthritis.
• Decreased social isolation; the social aspects of dance help to overcome feelings of loneliness and depression.
Elders who enjoy dancing are more likely to continue, and in so doing, gain greater physical benefits. Even so, the physical demands of dance should be appropriate to the capabilities of the elder. Therefore, it’s important to select a form of dance and exercise routine that matches the physical capabilities of the elder.
There are a host of other health benefits gained from yoga, tai chi and dancing, which includes:
• Lowering of high blood pressure
• Reducing high cholesterol and blood sugar levels
• Controlling body fat and weight.
• Reducing anxiety and depression; improving mental ability.
• Improving sleep
• Promoting a sense of well-being and social inclusion.
The basic steps of getting started with exercise include:
Finding a Class
• Yoga, tai chi and dance classes are held in many communities locations (senior centers, YMCA/YWCA, health clubs, community recreation centers, etc.)
• There are dozens of books and DVDs about yoga, tai chi and dance. However, consider seeking guidance from a qualified instructor (especially for yoga and tai chi) to gain full benefits and learn proper techniques. An instructor can teach you how to practice yoga or tai chi safely, especially if you have chronic health conditions or balance problems.
Checking with Your Doctor
• Although yoga, tai chi and dance are generally safe, it’s important to talk with your doctor before starting a new program. This is particularly important if you have any chronic health problems that affect your joints, back or bones (osteoporosis).
Just Do It
• To gain the balance and confidence benefits of yoga, tai chi or dance, dosing is important. To reap the greatest health benefits, exercise must be practiced regularly (2-3 times a week for a period of 8-12 weeks). Once you recognize some benefit, you may enjoy longer and greater benefits by continuing to exercise for a longer duration.
• Although yoga, tai chi and dance are relatively safe forms of exercise, with virtually no harmful side effects, it's possible to strain your muscles or overdo it when first starting out, or you could aggravate an existing health condition. Therefore, always start low and go slow.
Click here to read Dr. Rein Tideiksaar’s article, “What Seniors Can Learn from Falls.”
Rein Tideiksaar Ph.D., PA-C (or Dr Rein as he is commonly referred to) is the president of FallPrevent, LLC, Blackwood, NJ, a consulting company that provides educational, legal and marketing services related to fall prevention in the elderly. Dr Tideiksaar is a gerontologist (health care professional who specializes in working with elderly patients) and a geriatric physician's assistant. He has been active in the area of fall prevention for over 30 years, and has directed numerous research projects on falls and has developed fall prevention programs in the community, assisted living, home care, acute care hospital, and nursing facility setting. To learn more, check out the Doctor’s professional profile on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/dr-rein/6/759/592. If you have any questions about preventing falls, please feel free to email Dr. Tideiksaar at firstname.lastname@example.org
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