Balance Exercises to Reduce Fall Risk

Falls and fall-related injuries, such as hip fractures, can lead to a lengthy rehabilitation process and possible long-term functional limitations. That's why it makes sense to be proactive and improve your balance while you can, says Polly deMille, RN, RCEP, an exercise physiologist at the Women's Sports Medicine Center at the Weill Cornell-affiliated Hospital for Special Surgery.

"Most balance exercises target your stabilizing muscles--the muscles around your joints, the core, and your hip muscles. Generally, these exercises don't involve a lot of movement--it could be something as simple as standing on one leg," deMille explains.

More than meets the eye. Training the stabilizing muscles is not as simple as it looks, however, deMille says. "If you see someone doing a stabilizing exercise, it may look as though they're not doing much of anything--they're not lifting weights or doing fancy moves. But even though those deep muscles that are being activated aren't visible, they're working hard to keep the person upright."

Balance depends on more than just muscles, deMille observes. "All your sensory organs play a role. Your vision gives you a sense of where you are in space, which is why more people fall in the dark," she explains. Sense organs in the joints and skin, called proprioceptors, also tell you where you are in space. "So, if you have arthritis or a neuropathy (nerve pain or numbness), you may not be getting the right feedback from the areas that are essential to good balance," says deMille.

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Your inner ear also plays a role in balance; therefore, anything that disturbs its proper function, such as a cold, infection, or blockage (for example, excessive wax buildup), can affect your balance. Even the cardiovascular system responds to health problems in ways that affect balance. For example, if your blood pressure is low and you stand up suddenly, you'll feel dizzy or lightheaded (orthostatic hypotension), which can make you unsteady.

When to see a doctor. Everyone gets dizzy occasionally. But if you notice that you're getting less steady on your feet, see your doctor for a checkup to determine the cause. If you have an abrupt change in your sense of balance or sudden, severe dizziness, "see a doctor right away," deMille advises.

Here are two exercises to improve your balance.

Hip Flexion. Stand with good posture, holding on to a chair for balance. Slowly bring your right knee up toward your chest without bending your torso forward. Hold for one to three seconds, then slowly lower your leg back to the floor. Repeat with the left leg. Alternate legs until you've done 8-15 repetitions with each leg. Do this exercise several times a day. Progress until you can balance without holding on.

Knee Flexion. Stand behind a sturdy chair, holding on for balance. Lift your right foot off the floor and slowly bend your right knee as far back as possible while keeping your hips in line (don't bend your torso forward or push one hip back farther than the other). Hold the position for one to three seconds. Repeat with the left leg. Alternate legs until you've done 8-15 repetitions with each leg. Do this exercise several times a day. As you progress, hold on to the chair with one hand, then with one fingertip, then without holding on at all.

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