(BPT) - As leaves change color and cooler temperatures make outdoor walking more appealing, many seniors are enjoying this free and easy form of exercise. Global studies have shown many positive effects of walking on overall health and well-being. In a 2019 study of older women, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that taking just 4,400 steps a day were significantly associated with lower risk of death compared with taking 2,700 steps a day.
Unfortunately, many seniors find that their body’s balance reflex diminishes with age, increasing their risk of falling or their fear of falling, which can prevent them from enjoying the benefits of walking. Less mobility, in turn, can result in seniors being less social and physically active, reducing their quality of life. For seniors, balance problems can increase their worries about walking and enjoying other activities," said Angie Kalousek-Ebrahimi, senior director of Lifestyle Medicine at Blue Shield of California. "However, falls are preventable, and seniors can improve their balance and reduce their risk of falling by including balance training in their daily routine, along with other active measures."
Balance relies on a complex system of signals and coordination between muscle-joint feedback, your vision, and your inner ear with your brain to function correctly. If health issues arise in any one of these areas, that can affect your balance, putting you at risk for falls.
If balance concerns are causing you to avoid walking or participating in activities you used to enjoy, here are practical steps you can take.
Get a checkup
See your primary care provider and discuss concerns about your balance, including symptoms like dizziness. These issues could result from inner ear disorders, for example, that may be treatable.
Also ask your doctor to check your feet. As you age, your feet change and may become less flexible due to arthritis, diabetes or other issues. Because your feet are the first line of defense between you and the ground, changes in your feet can affect your balance.
Schedule an eye exam
Just as you get annual checkups for your overall health, regular exams by an ophthalmologist will help ensure that vision issues are not negatively impacting your balance. Vision makes up one-third of the complex system that controls balance. An exam can also spot other eye issues that may arise as you age including cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration.
In addition, many other health concerns are detectable in early stages through an eye exam, including diabetes, MS, certain cancers, heart disease and high blood pressure. Make sure your health plan includes vision coverage and take advantage of those benefits by scheduling annual eye exams.
At-risk seniors can train their brain and body
Some aspects of balance can be practiced. For example, Blue Shield of California recently introduced Nymbl, a digitally based, scientifically proven approach to balance training on its Wellvolution platform. Nymbl, designed for seniors at high risk of falling, combines simple body movements with brain games to train your brain and body to work together to improve your balance reflexes, helping you stay mobile and participate confidently in life.
"Good balance and good health go hand in hand, and Nymbl provides an evidence-based solution to help seniors achieve this positive outcome," said Kalousek-Ebrahimi.
The program takes just 10 minutes per day, and the digital app works on mobile devices (phones and tablets) and computers. A 2020 Nymbl study reported that among participants in Nymbl’s balance training and mobility improvement program, 75% of users reported improved confidence in balance, and 44% said they felt more stable while walking.
"I've been using Nymbl for several months and it has made a difference,” said Don Janssen, a Blue Shield of California member. "It's easy, and the physical exercises are not that difficult, but they get harder as you go. That gives me a feeling of progression and accomplishing something. I feel better after I do it, so it’s self-rewarding."
Unsure if balance is a problem for you?
Here’s a checklist to determine if you should consider steps to improve your balance:
- Do you touch walls or furniture as you walk?
- Have you fallen recently, or caught yourself falling?
- Do you avoid walking outdoors or withdraw from activities you used to enjoy?
- Have you experienced recent health changes, including vision changes?
- Do you take four or more prescription medications?
All of these could mean prioritizing balance may be a good idea for you. Consult your healthcare provider and take steps to help you stay mobile, active, and healthy — for many years to come.
Disclaimer: This information is not medical advice. Consult your doctor or medical professional before making any health or lifestyle changes.