Balance tests: Is it your wake-up call?

Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2002

Many of us take our balance for granted. Experts now realize that balance begins to deteriorate for most of us in middle age and the changes are so subtle we may not even be aware of the problem until we are in our 70s.

In the books, "Strong Women Stay Young" and "Strong Women, Strong Bones," the author, Dr. Miriam Nelson, writes about what might possibly throw us off balance.

Factors that affect our balance include medical conditions such as osteoporosis and hypotension, medications, alcohol, environmental hazards, footwear, age-related sensory changes and muscle weakness.

Nelson also reports the results of her research with sedentary postmenopausal women she conducted at Tufts University. The control group was asked to maintain their usual lifestyle for a year. The other group of women strength trained (lifted weights) twice a week during the same year in the Tufts University laboratory.

The results revealed that the control group in addition to losing bone and muscle mass, showed an 8 percent decline in balance and were less active than before. The women who strength trained improved their balance by 14 percent.

"For many women past 35, these changes -- the loss of strength, the lack of vigor -- are painfully familiar. If you are experiencing them, you may have figured it's all an inevitable part of getting older. Wrong! Scientists at Tufts and elsewhere now know this isn't true," Nelson writes. "The main reason most people slow down when they get older is that they lose about a third of their muscle mass between ages 35 and 80. Yes, aging plays a role. However, inactivity is a major factor -- and that's something you can address."

At my booth at the Village Fair, I will have participants perform balance tests to assess their balancing ability. I have used these tests when I teach my strength training classes using Nelson's information, and I have observed people say these balance tests are a "wake-up call" for them.

Why is it a wake-up call? Think about an elderly person you know. Have you noticed that the fear of falling has greatly affected their quality of life.

"One of the saddest consequences of deteriorating balance, aside from falling itself, is the fear of falling," Nelson says. "This starts a vicious cycle that diminishes the quality of life. An older person becomes cautious physically -- and rightly so. But this can lead to inactivity, weakness and falls; the falls, in turn, prompt more fear and even less activity."

So what does balance have to do with strength training? Balancing ability is directly related to lower-body strength -- that is the strength of our legs and the flexibility of our ankles.

A simple lower-body strength test is to try to stand up from a sturdy kitchen or dining room chair without using your hands for assistance. This is a test researchers have found to predict falls. If you can't do this test, your risk of falling according to is, "two to three times higher than normal. Strength training can make significant improvements, even if you are frail."

At my Village Fair booth, I will have handouts that suggest ways to improve balance such as strengthening exercises and taking tai chi or yoga classes. The Village Fair will be held March 2 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Soldotna High School. Wear sturdy shoes and together we'll see if testing your balance is your "wake-up call" for fitness. See you there.

Linda Athons is an agent at the Alaska Cooperative Extension Office. She is a home economist and involved in the 4-H/Youth Develop-ment programs. The Kenai Penin-sula District Extension Office is at 43961 Kalifornsky Beach Road, Suite A, Soldotna, AK. The phone number is 262-5824 or toll-free at (800) 478-5824.

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