Many people become less active with age. The number of people who exercise regularly drops significantly as the years go on. By the age of 70, only about 10% of people get the recommended amount of exercise. That’s a problem for several reasons. Both men and women lose muscle mass with age. Research shows that muscle mass decreases by up to 40% between the ages of 20 and 80. This loss of muscle leads to decreases in strength and a drop in metabolism as metabolically-active muscle tissue declines. This is one factor that contributes to weight gain and changes in body composition with age.
One way to reduce the loss of muscle mass with age is through resistance training – but there’s another type of exercise that many people aren’t getting enough of that can impact their health as they age – and that’s balance training. Both strength training and balance exercises become more important as we age.
Why is Balance Training Important?
According to a recent study published in the British Medical Journal, balance training combined with lower body strength training decreases the risk of falling in older people by almost a third. You may be young enough not to be at high risk for falling right now, but it’s never too early to work on balance. Lower body strengthening exercises like squats, lunges, and deadlifts that build lower body strength combined with exercises that focus on balance can greatly reduce the risk of injuries of all types.
The Importance of Strength and Balance Exercises
Unfortunately, when many middle-aged and older people exercise, they usually walk at a moderate pace. This has some benefit, but it does little to develop strength and preserve lean body mass or improve balance. Some of that time would be better spent doing resistance training and balance exercises. In fact, it’s never too early to add some balance training to your workout. If you’re an athlete, it’s critical that you work on balance, but even if you’re not, it’s still important.
Any activity that requires shifting your center of gravity like reaching up to get something off a high shelf or lifting one foot tests your balance skills. Developing good balance reduces your risk of injury when you’re playing sports – and when you’re not, it’ll help you develop the neural connections you need to avoid falls and injuries later in life.
Do You Have Good Balance?
Try this simple balance. Place the heel of one foot against the toes of the other as if you’re going to walk a straight line. Hold that position and close your eyes. If you can’t hold the position for 30 seconds or more without becoming unstable, you need to work on balance.
Simple Ways to Work on Balance
You don’t need to sign up for a yoga or Tai-Chi class to improve your balance. Do push-ups on an unstable surface like the underside of a BOSU ball instead of placing your hands flat on the floor. You can also do squats and deadlifts while standing on the domed surface of a BOSU ball to work on proprioception and balance. If you don’t have a BOSU ball, do one-legged squats or one-legged hops several times a week. Here’s a sneaky way to work on balance even when you’re not working out. When you’re standing in line at a store, see how long you can balance on one foot. For more of a challenge, do it with your eyes closed.
The Bottom Line?
Staying healthy and in shape involves more than good aerobic capacity. Strength training, especially lower-body work that uses large muscles and balance exercises will limit the decrease in lean body mass that comes with age and the risk of injuries and falls. Make sure you have a well-balanced fitness program that emphasizes strength, balance, and cardio.
BMJ, news release, Aug. 7, 2012.
Rakel. Integrative Medicine. Second Edition. “Balance and Agility”