On Balance, Your Ability to Move With Confidence Is Central to a Healthy Life

Publish Date:

Sunday, January 4, 2009

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Washington Post

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It was parents' day at my younger daughter's karate class, and those of us who dared took off our shoes and socks and had at it with the kids.

The instructor showed us how to lean back on one leg and kick a two-foot rectangular plastic sheet he held with one hand. When my turn came, I approached him cautiously, bounced and wobbled on my "planted" left leg, and kicked the sheet three times before bringing my right leg down to the floor to keep from falling over.

The blond-haired tyke next to me did it about 46 times, barely wavering as his left leg held him rock-steady and his right foot snapped out a snare-drum rhythm on the crinkly plastic film. We switched to the other leg, with more or less the same results.

Okay, the Karate Kid takes lessons and I don't. He is young and limber, and I'm sure his knees don't make crackling sounds when he gets out of bed in the morning.

But the difference in our ability to simply balance on one foot was something of a shock.

"When most people think about exercise and being healthy, they normally think about their cardiovascular health, about running and doing endurance exercises, or we think we have to keep our muscles strong, so we do resistance exercises," says Chhanda Dutta, chief of the clinical gerontology branch of the National Institute on Aging.

As we spend middle age sweating away pounds to ward off obesity, watching our diets to keep arteries from clogging, and strengthening our muscles to retain vigor into old age, we might want to stop and think about our balance.

You take it for granted, right? You get up from your office chair, walk across the room, get a drink of water, walk back to your desk, and nothing terrible happens. You glide across a tennis court and smack a forehand without stumbling, take out the trash and return unscathed, step in and out of the shower without incident.

And then one day, without warning, that can change. "It isn't until we lose that ability that we realize how important these things are," Dutta says.

Falls among older people are common, costly and debilitating. More than one-third of people age 65 and older will fall this year. Every 18 seconds, someone in that age group is treated in a hospital emergency room for a fall-related injury, and every 35 minutes an older person dies from a fall, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Men are 49 percent more likely than women to be killed in falls. But women are much more likely to suffer nonfatal injuries or fractured bones. Women make up nearly three-quarters of the people admitted to hospitals for hip fractures, one of the most debilitating results of falls.

Your ability to stay upright and move confidently through space is determined by a complex combination of muscle strength, nerve function, visual inputs, the vestibular function of your inner ear and your proprioception -- the work of sensors, including nerves in the soles of your feet, that orient you in relation to other objects.

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