From the ages 50 to 80, it's generally downhill as far as muscle is concerned. Sedentary people can lose about half their strength and muscle from their peak in teens and twenties. Loss of muscle is called sarcopenia, and loss of muscle means loss of strength -- and here's the point -- it means loss of balance as well. You need muscle strength in legs, lower back, abdominals, and even arms, to sustain balance.
How to Limit Muscle Loss
As a general rule, you can limit strength and muscle loss with exercise and weight training. A recent scientific review suggests that long-term vigorous exercisers at the age of 80 have similar qualities of strength, muscle and aerobic fitness as sedentary 50-year olds. The secret is not to leave it until you get older to start doing weights (and aerobic work for heart fitness). Starting late still has great benefits, but life-long exercisers seem to have an edge. Continuous physical activity from an early age seems to remodel the body -- metabolically and physiologically as well as anatomically.
We learn balance at a young age -- from crawling to walking to running. Standing, then moving fluently on two legs is not a trivial task, all things considered, compared to four-legged animals. Muscles, tendons and ligaments work with the nervous system to provide balance, which we mostly take for granted until things go wrong. Resistance training not only builds and maintains muscle, it also trains the nervous system to deliver strength. The neuromuscular system is a key factor in balance.
While general strength and muscle training is a great all-round approach to addressing balance in senior years, here is a progressive set of exercises designed to enhance balance at any age, but especially for the over 50s.
Phase 1. Squats, open and closed eyes.
- Stand upright, legs about shoulder width apart.
- Raise the arms out in front, parallel to the ground.
- Do 5 half-squats by bending the knees a little. Don't go too far down and keep the back straight.
- Standing up straight again, with hands out in front, close your eyes (don't peek).
- Hold this for 20 seconds.
- Now do 5 squats with your eyes closed.
- Repeat this sequence of squats twice, that is, 20 squats in all. You can do more if you feel comfortable with the closed-eye squats.
- Don't progress to 'eyes closed' until you are competent with 'eyes open' squats.
- If you feel unsteady with any part of this or following exercises, ensure you have a railing or firm support to grab if you tend to fall.
Phase 2. One-legged squats, open and closed eyes.
- Stand upright, warm up with a few two-legged squats, open and closed eyes (as above).
- Stand on one leg, hands out in front, maintain balance for 10 seconds. Swap to the other leg.
- Stand on one leg, eyes open, hands out in front and squat a short way by bending the knee. Do 3 squats, change to the other leg and do 3 squats.
- Stand on either leg, close your eyes, maintain balance for 10 seconds. Practice until you can achieve this.
- Now the difficult one: Stand on one leg, hands raised in front, closed eyes, and squat a short way. This is difficult but can be mastered with practice. Do 3 squats with each leg, returning to the standing position, eyes open, at the completion of each squat.
Master these exercises, and you will reach a high level of biomechanical and spatial balance, but do allow for unsteadiness along the way by providing a rail or other grab handle for security.
And if you really want to get serious, do the one-legged, eyes closed squat on a wobble board or soft balance trainer!