April 27, 2012
Dear Mayo Clinic:
I am 83 years old and have osteoarthritis affecting several joints and a peripheral neuropathy. I have been in exercise programs for the past four years but my balance seems to be getting worse. It is difficult to stand in one spot without holding onto something. Is there any exercise that addresses balance problems?
Yes, a variety of exercises can help improve your balance. Most are simple and take no more than about 10 minutes a day. These exercises can increase your stability, help prevent falls and enhance your overall fitness.
With aging, balance tends to decline for a number of reasons, including deteriorating eyesight and loss of muscle mass. As in your situation, complications from other health conditions, such as osteoarthritis and peripheral neuropathy, can make good balance a challenge, too. Hearing problems or another disorder that affects your inner ears can also lead to balance problems because the inner ear plays a key role in your body's ability to keep its balance.
Balance problems are common in many older adults, and they need to be taken seriously and addressed. Poor balance can make walking and other routine daily activities, such as putting on your shoes or going up and down stairs, difficult. It also greatly increases a person's risk of falling and, especially in the elderly, breaking a bone or suffering another type of serious injury. That's significant because research has shown that if an individual older than 65 falls and breaks a bone, that injury has the potential to substantially lower their life expectancy.
Exercises to help improve balance are usually simple and do not take much time. For example, one easy exercise is moving from sitting to standing and back again in and out of a chair, with your eyes open and then with your eyes closed. (Have someone else there to help when you close your eyes.) Another is standing on one foot, first using a chair or countertop to steady you if need be, then progressing to standing without assistance. Although these exercises are not complicated, if you do them consistently every day, they can be very effective in retraining your brain to help improve balance. As you become more confident and your balance improves, you can move on to exercises that are more complex, if you like.
In addition to basic balance exercises, other activities have been associated with better balance and walking ability in older adults, including tai chi and yoga. Exercises designed to improve strength and increase muscle mass can also help balance because stronger muscles improve mobility and reduce the risk of falls.
Exercises to help improve balance are critical for older adults who feel they are losing their ability to balance well. But these exercises are also important for people of all ages and ability levels. There is no need to wait until you have balance problems to start practicing these exercises. Everyone should make them part of an overall exercise program that includes aerobic exercise, as well as activities to maintain or improve strength and flexibility.
Before beginning any new exercises, particularly when you are dealing with other health concerns, talk to your doctor. The doctor can help you determine the reasons for your imbalance and decide what's best for your situation. In some cases, your doctor may refer you to a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist who can work with you to develop a comprehensive exercise program, as well as monitor your progress and deal with any questions or setbacks along the way.
— Carmen Terzic, M.D., Ph.D., Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.