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Your questions about healthy aging and balance, answered

As we age, what should we know about balance? Our head trainer Alicia recently sat down with Ranjani Kumar, DPT, to talk about balance, healthy aging, and how we can live healthier lives.

Ranjani has been a physical therapist for the last 16 years. She completed her undergraduate degree and graduate degree in India and earned her Doctor of Physical Therapy in the US and is experienced in working with older adults. Read on for key questions answered during their chat.

What does it mean to age in a healthy way?

Alicia: To age in a healthy way means to maintain functionality – of both the brain and body. This can be accomplished through movement and exercises. Aging healthy means trying to maintain that functionality.

Ranjani: As we age, we want to be as independent as possible. That’s the first thing I hear from my residents. We must have a good balance, posture and muscles. It’s not easy – but very doable!

How is balance related to healthy aging?

Ranjani: As we age, we have a very natural muscle loss that happens with aging. We have three systems – our vision, our vestibular in our inner ear which controls our balance, and then somatosensory – our body’s position. Even without knowing where we are, I know where my index finger is, or where my hand is pointing to. Balance is a mix of all these three senses. As we age, we depend on one thing more than the other. Sometimes, for example, we have low vision, and we depend on the other sense.

Alicia: Balance is a foundational daily activity, that we do daily, without noticing it. When you’re walking, at one point, your foot is off the ground – so you’re maintaining balance. Balance is important as you age, because you want to make sure you are maintaining muscle strength. As we’re aging, that normal decline starts to happen, and we can reduce some of that muscle loss.

What does it mean to have good balance, and what does it mean to have poor balance?

Ranjani: Let’s say we have to pick out clothes in the morning, and someone has their clothing rack really high. If I overreach, if I’m not struggling – I have a good dynamic balance. If I reach further, and I am on my toes to get it, and I am still good – I’m still doing well. Poor balance would be if I am struggling with that task. Even if I am struggling to sit, which is static balance – if I am struggling to move and pick up my coffee mug for example – then that’s not good balance.

Alicia: Good balance means you can maintain your center of gravity. Good balance comes when you’re able to control your mobility – I don’t like the word slow, we’re living in a fast-paced world. Good balance comes when you’re able to overreach and you don’t lose control.

What are some ways people can assess their balance, safely, in the home by themselves?

Ranjani: I use a simple stand test. If I can stand and sit 5 times (without the armrest) in 15–30 seconds, that’s one test we can do. If I am able to stand on one leg for 15 seconds, that’s also good. Apart from all these tests — as human beings, we’re very aware of what’s going on. The reasons for falls are many. It’s not just physiological, it’s also psychological. It could be weak muscles, dizziness, UTIs, dementia, cognitive disorders, medications – there are so many reasons. Assessing your home is important and so is taking care of pathways, cords, better lighting – these are all things to be aware of. 

Alicia: We get a lot of individuals who say – I can’t get up off the toilet, I can’t get off my couch or bed. Strengthening the lower body is important. Don’t forget the possibility of strengthening your legs if you’re doing a sit to stand test, which is technically a squat! Don’t be afraid of a squat. You can grow into a squat, it takes time. Those are some of things we can practice at home.

Ranjani: I agree with that, Alicia! If you’re tired one day – you say you don’t want to do any exercises — do sit and stand exercises. These work the three big muscles in the body: Abdominals, glutes and quads. They’re very important.

How can someone improve your balance?

Alicia: If you don’t know where to start – we do guided assessments at Bold and then we customize a program that works for you, based on what will help YOU get stronger. Staying in tune with a trainer, our live events – this past week we did a few exercises to practice our balance, keeping it simple.

Ranjani: I like to add a lot of stretches to my exercises. Try to hold your exercises a little longer. Research says holding positions for longer stretches our muscles and gets them going for the next 24 hours.

Alicia: We want to move fast; we want to have fast exercises. But slow it down sometimes and focus on the smaller muscles, or your joints. Check in on yourself – can you do a rotation, can you reach up high, can you hold a position? Tai Chi has been proven to help a lot because it has slow movements that challenge your balance.

Ranjani: It’s also important to strengthen our ankle muscles. It might seem small, but it’s such an important muscle. Start with stretches, do a lot of strengthening, and then end with stretches. I also tell my residents, count to three before you get up and go to the bathroom – we’re all groggy and our muscles need that time to adjust to standing up. Those are the times we see falls happening, so take it slowly.

Alicia: When you slow down, you’re not only strengthening the muscle, you’re strengthening your brain – you want these connections to continue. You want your brain to connect with your body, and to keep those connections firing — this can help our memory.

Interested in testing your balance? Take a Bold assessment today