Felt that slight drift when you walk? Don’t let it get worse
As we age there are two creeping disabilities that have catastrophic consequences, yet can often be dramatically slowed with a little effort. The first one is the loss of balance, and the second is loss of the strength to get up off the floor.
And, of course, the two are related. If you fall from poor balance and cannot get up off the floor, then you could be in dire trouble.
If you suffer from no complicating factors, then here are two simple at-home exercises you can do to improve your balance, and your skeletal muscle strength.
Let's start with balance. Slight loss of balance can often be seen when people drift when they walk. Over 60 this drift is not uncommon - just slightly. Sometimes I get a surprise myself when a foot seems to drift a little off track to the right or left.
This type of slight drift is something to which you should pay attention. If it continues to get worse it can lead to falls.
Falls are a major problem among the elderly population; they are the leading cause of injury above the age of 65. Of those who fall in the U.S., 20 to 30% suffer moderate to severe injuries that reduce mobility and independence and increase the risk of death. Sixty percent of outdoor falls among older adults resulted from slips or trips.
Provided that there are no other complicating factors age-related degeneration in balance can be slowed. This is because the degeneration is the result of a decline in stimulation of the vestibular subsystem - which maintains our overall balance and position.
Our neck plays a key role in our balance
The vestibular subsystem coordinates our neck, eye, trunk, and limb muscle reflexes and evolved to meet our very complex balance and positional demands. This is the subsystem of proprioception - the sensing of self-movement and body position sometimes described as the "sixth sense".
Proprioception is enabled by proprioceptors - mechanosensory neurons located within muscles, tendons, and joints.
For example, our ankles are full of proprioceptors - the joint, tendons, ligaments and muscles. We need to keep these ankle proprioceptors active and in good health to be able to maintain ankle stability. When we twist our ankle proprioceptors are damaged, often permanently. That's why the most accurate predictor of future rolled ankles is a previous rolled ankle.
Think of our neck - the cervical spine and the cervical muscles contain a highly developed proprioceptive system. This system provides neuromuscular control for our neck and also efficient utilisation of the vital organs in our head via connections to the vestibular and visual systems.
In other words, our neck plays a key role in our balance. We'll come back to this a little later.
Just like our skeletal muscles, our heart, our lungs, or our brain, we need to keep exercising and training all the neuromuscular pathways which keep us balanced.
If we don't actively exercise these systems, then the neural pathways become rusty and slow down, the muscles become weak, and the tendons become stiff. The result is that our vital balance sensors have trouble getting accurate readings about our posture. The readings they can get are slow to get to our brain, and our brain is troubled to understand exactly where we are headed.
That's when we drift.
Natural degeneration can be slowed
You can think of it like this: the aged sensors in our ankles, neck and eyes are having trouble agreeing on our body's position and momentum. This confusion is exacerbated by the natural degeneration of the balance mechanisms in our inner ear. (We lose balance hairs as we age which is one reason we find it harder to walk a plank at an Obstacle Race.)
By the time brain comes up with a compromise and sends a signal to move our foot our body has arrived at a slightly different position to what the brain was informed by the ankles, neck, eyes and ears. Our foot movement is not in perfect sync with our body movement, and its placement causes us to wobble.
You can reduce this friction in your sensing mechanisms by exercising them - provided that you're otherwise in good health.
Here’s the first very simple exercise for you to do daily. This will improve your balance coordination pathways and sensors and potentially reduce or eliminate your drift.
Exercise #1 Laughing Clowns
Think of the carnival classic of clown heads turning from side to side. Walk down your corridor, and every three steps turn your head and look to the opposite side. Hold your arms out to towards the walls for safety.
When confident with sideways turns, then add in moving your head up and down. Look up high, and then down low.
The movement is important because often a stiff neck can dull the receptors. This leads to poor signalling which results in imbalance and drifting (and often headaches). Take it gently and slowly and don’t go beyond any point of pain.
Do this Laughing Clowns exercise daily for about 1 minute. When you are confident and stable, add it into your regular walk (I do it every time I walk).
Tips: If your neck hurts stop - get advice. If it makes you too unstable stop. Move your eye attention when you move your head, don't just turn your head and keep your eyes facing straight ahead.
This exercise connects your entire balance system from your eyes, ears, through your neck, to your feet. It exercises it and renews the neural pathways and retunes the effectiveness of the positioning receptors in your neck, for example. The movement is important because often a stiff neck can dull the receptors.
Level-ups: Once you are stable every three steps, do the movements every two steps, and then each step.
Exercise # 2 The Lounge Get-up
The Lounge Get-up develops your ability to get up off the floor. If you cannot get up off the floor then don’t try this. If you doubt that you can get up off the floor then make sure that you have help with you.
Do this 10 times in total - 5 times facing one way and 5 times facing the other way.
Do it daily, for the rest of your life. How about when the TV ads are on? Give it a go.
When you are feeling confident and stronger change to rolling away from the lounge. Roll over, get up onto all fours, and then stand up. If you have trouble roll back to the lounge and stand up from there.
If you are already strong and confident with getting up off the floor try these hip-flexor exercises in this post below.
Daily, for the rest of your life
Doing this balance exercise and this get-up exercise daily will rebuild your nervous and muscular systems and lessen the risk of falls. It will enable you to live longer independently in your own home.
Your family will thank you.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or another qualified clinician. Disclaimer.
Since I was diagnosed at 50 with Type 2 diabetes I've been learning how to do bone-building fitness training which lowers my age. You can too. It's your choice. Walter