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Improving Your Balance to Prevent Falls

Excerpted from an article by Jane E. Brody, New York Times 12/15/20

"The goal is stability by increasing one's downward force."

"We don’t move to achieve balance; first we balance, then we move.” Balance is not subject to conscious control, but it can be enhanced by use and diminished by disuse, he explained. “The key to balance and stability in humans is the ability to create downward force in excess of body weight. Thus, neither a statue nor a surfer standing stiff as a statue can remain upright on a surfboard.”

"unlike building up arm or leg muscles, increasing the strength of postural muscles to improve balance is not something visible. It’s internal, something the body, not the mind, must learn to do, like learning how to balance on a bicycle. (Parents take note: Children don’t learn how to balance on a bike until the training wheels are removed!)

Balance,” Mr. Locker wrote, “is not a skill,” and it “is not attained by aptitude, memory or repetition.” In an interview, he said, “Balance is not about moving, thinking about it, being athletic or strong.” Nor is it subject to willful control. Rather, it is something the body learns to do automatically by engaging the postural muscles. Given the amount of sitting most of us do these days, “the postural muscles literally forget how to maintain balance, even on steady, level surfaces,” he wrote.

No weights or machines are needed to strengthen postural muscles. Rather, the body’s own weight is engaged, as in skating when, with bent knee and ankle, the body’s weight is transferred from the back leg to the front leg, or in paddle boarding, when body weight is evenly distributed between bent legs."

"As Mr. Locker, now 70, explained, “The exercises in Postural Retraining use the body’s own weight to prompt the postural muscles to balance the body.” The exercises are isometric; there is no movement. Rather, postural muscles are tensed and the tension is sustained as long as possible, which builds the strength of both muscles and bones.

"“Walking on an even surface is not weight-bearing,” at least not as Mr. Locker defines it, because it does not train postural muscles. “The knee tends to lock when the foot contacts the ground, and the foot does not remain on the ground for more than a moment. Therefore walking, while wonderful and healthy, does not improve balance."

"Basically, the feet learn to be more firmly connected to the ground while the body weight moves within a base of support." [As we do in qigong]

A sample lesson: You’ve likely heard advice to improve balance by standing on one leg when you brush your teeth. A far better plan is to bend the knee and ankle of the leg you’re standing on to engage the postural muscles. At the same time, the pelvic muscles remain relaxed. If added support is needed, use the tips of the fingers of one hand on the sink or wall, but keep in mind that the goal is to stand without support, using the wall only for balance.

Another simple exercise involves standing straight with thigh and buttocks muscles relaxed, then bending knees and ankles as if you’re about to sit on a high stool. Keep the spine straight and pelvis relaxed. Hold this position for as long as you can, increasing the time gradually as your postural muscles get stronger, up to 15 minutes.

The ultimate goal, Mr. Locker said, is to achieve “a tremendous connection to the ground so that when you get pushed, instead of lifting up your shoulders and falling forward, your knees and ankles bend and the body naturally pushes into the ground.”"

George Locker - Author of Falling is Not an Option: A Way of Lifelong Balance

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