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Balance and the Fear of Falling

How balanced are you?
How balanced are you?

I got the call late on a Saturday night. A friend of mine had fallen going into his house and he wasn't sure he would be making his workout on Monday. He wasn't hurt bad, just a few scrapes and a bruised hip, but it kept him off his feet for a couple days.

It could have been much worse. My friend is in his 80s, and for older adults, falls are the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries. In 2010, adults age 65 and up experienced 2.3 million nonfatal injuries from falling. Over 662,000 were hospitalized and 21,700 older adults died from unintentional fall injuries.

Often it's not the fall that does the damage, but the fear of falling. As people age they start to limit their physical activities. That leads to weaker muscles, reduced mobility and over time an even greater risk of falling.

It doesn't have to happen. To prevent and prepare for future falls, clean up the external and work on the internal. Here's how to start.

External

Give your home a safety check. Inside the house you should pin down loose rugs, clear pathways from room to room and get cords off the floor. Put down non-skid mats in places that get wet like the bathroom or the kitchen sink.

Install grab bars around the tub, shower and toilet. If you have a staircase, make sure there's a railing on both sides and not just one.

Clear debris from pathways outside. Put away your garden hoses, yard tools and anything else that may be a tripping hazard. In the autum keep your walkway clear of leaves and dead plants. In the winter make sure snow and ice doesn't build up.

Choose shoes with lower heels and ones with treaded rubber soles or nonskid bottoms. If you use a cane or walker, make sure the rubber padding on the bottom hasn't worn out.

(Another tip when you're using a cane. Make sure it's tall enough so that when you walk, you don't have to hunch over. Stand up straight!)

Replace dim bulbs with lights that are bright enough for you to clearly see everything. It's especially important around your bed at night. Get a night light that turns on with movement or put a lamp within reach of your bed for when you need to visit the bathroom.

Internal

Work on improving your balance through exercises. A great time to start is when you're brushing your teeth. Set a timer and stand on one leg for a minute, then the opposite leg for another minute. When the two minutes are up you've finished brushing your teeth and gotten a little steadier. You can do the same thing when you're waiting in line at the grocery store, the post office, the bank or while washing dishes.

When you sit down to eat, pull the chair up as close to the table as you can. That forces you to sit up straight and use your core to keep you in position.

Walk in a straight line, putting one foot directly in front of the other, heel to toe. Walk at least 10 feet in one direction, turn around and walk back. Do that once in the morning and once at night. Challenge yourself to see how far you can go without falling off the line. If you're feeling unsteady, have a friend stand beside you to help out.

The next time you drop something, bend over to pick it up while lifting one leg behind you. As you get steadier on your feet, lift the leg up higher and then switch sides.

For the truly dedicated, get a Swiss ball and sit on it while watching the television. Start by seeing if you can balance on it for five minutes at a time and slowly build up until you can make it through an hour-long show. You'll help stabilize your core, improve your balance and avoid unhealthy snacks because there's no place to put them down.

Don't fear falling. Follow these simple steps to achieve better balance.

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1/12/2014