When we’re younger, we take our ability to balance for granted. For seniors, balance issues like dizziness or vertigo can go from a minor annoyance to a serious risk to their health and safety.
When it comes to helping older adults stay happy and healthy, you’ll often hear balance exercises come up as a recommendation. Which may leave you wondering, why should senior citizens perform balance exercises? The answer is as simple as it is powerful. A few effective, daily exercises to improve balance can help seniors reduce the risk of some health issues and prevent falls. Similar to wellness activities, age-appropriate exercises and strength training can help seniors stay active and engaged.
Recognizing what causes balance issues in seniors and treating those issues and doing exercises to improve strength and balance can ensure that seniors can avoid falls and other injuries and maintain their independence.
Recognizing Balance Problems in Seniors
Balance problems in seniors can take many forms. Seniors may stagger when walking or teeter or fall when trying to stand. They might also experience other symptoms, such as:
- Dizziness or vertigo (a spinning sensation)
- Falling or feeling as if they are going to fall
- Lightheadedness, faintness or a floating sensation
- Blurred vision
- Confusion or disorientation
- Nausea and vomiting
- Changes in heart rate and blood pressure
- Fear, anxiety or panic
Symptoms may come and go, or they may last for a long time. Because of their sporadic nature, this can make it hard to identify these balance problems. Many seniors feel self-conscious about these issues and may not tell caregivers or take the time to visit their doctor. If left untreated, balance issues can lead to fatigue and depression.
What Causes Balance Issues in Seniors?
One of the challenges of balance issues in seniors is that there can be many causes. The following are common causes, though a health care provider should make any diagnosis:
- Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV): One of the most common balance disorders is BPPV, an inner ear disturbance that can cause intense vertigo when moving your head. Even something as simple as rolling over in bed can trigger an attack.
- Ménière’s disease: This is another common inner ear condition. People with the disease often describe a “full” feeling in the ear. It can cause vertigo, ringing in the ears and sporadic hearing loss.
- Labyrinthitis: Balance problems can be caused when the inner ear becomes infected and inflamed. It is often linked to the flu.
- Ramsay Hunt syndrome: Older adults are often more prone to the shingles virus. Ramsay Hunt syndrome occurs when the virus affects the facial nerves near the ear. It can be accompanied by ear pain and hearing loss.
Certain chronic conditions like the following can also result in balance problems due to loss of vision, cognitive decline or mobility loss:
- Eye problems
- Parkinson’s disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Heart problems
- Even if the condition itself isn’t contributing to a senior’s balance issues, medications taken to treat these conditions may be a contributing factor.
Balance-Related Risks to Seniors
Another serious issue related to balance problems in senior citizens is the risk of falls. Falls are the leading cause of injury in adults age 65 years or older and can result in a drastic decrease in independence and reduced quality of life. Falls are often caused by extrinsic risk factors like loose stairs, slippery surfaces, frayed or loose rugs, and a lack of adequate lighting, or intrinsic risk factors like vertigo and other balance disorders.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four people age 65 and older will fall and falling once doubles your chances of falling again. A fall may seem minor for most of us and not result in any serious harm. But because older adults lose bone density as they age, falls can lead to wrist, arm, ankle and hip fractures, and head injuries. These can be very serious, especially if the senior takes certain medicines like blood thinners.
Many people who fall, even if they’re not injured, become afraid of falling. This may cause them to be less active, which contributes to further balance problems. Without regular exercise, seniors become weaker and more susceptible to falls.
Treatments and Exercises
Depending on the cause of the balance problems, there are ways to treat seniors. These may involve treating fluid imbalances in the inner ear, medications to treat inflammation or adjusting current medications. First and foremost, the most important treatment needs to be exercise for seniors to improve their strength and balance.
Exercises should be designed by a doctor or physical therapist to meet each senior’s unique needs and avoid the risk of falling or injury.
Strength Exercises for the Elderly
Similar to aerobic exercises, strength training comes in many forms. Ultimately, strength training works the muscles by creating resistance which the muscles exert force against. Engaging in some form of strength training a few times a week promotes muscle tone and supports overall health.
What are the best strength training exercises for seniors?
For seniors, light weights and body weight-based exercises may be the most appropriate option to avoid overdoing it and potential injuries. Likewise, exercises that promote core strength are important for seniors as they support balance and movement.
Core exercises targeting strength and balance can be modified for low impact activities such as wall push-ups and flamingo stands but can improve seniors’ confidence and overall conditioning. With an exercise routine in place, seniors can reduce their risk for falls and other injuries.
For exercises specific to individuals, families should consult a physical or occupational therapist who can recommend a targeted set of exercises. For instance, if a family wanted to know “what helps elderly with weak legs?” a professional may recommend a blend of strength and balance that focus on leg muscles.
The following strength exercises are commonly considered good foundational exercises for seniors seeking to develop a routine that promotes strength and balance. Before beginning any exercise routine, first consult a healthcare professional.
Wall push-ups are ideal for seniors as they provide strengthening for the entire upper body with a particular emphasis on the arms and chest, but do not require climbing down to the floor. The only equipment necessary is a sturdy wall with enough space to maneuver.
- Stand a comfortable distance from the wall, move as close as necessary at first and stand farther back over time
- Place hands, square to the shoulders up against the wall
- Keeping the body straight, bend your elbows and lean into the wall until your face comes near its surface
- To reverse the motion, straighten your arms and push your body back away from the wall, returning to the starting position
This quirkily named exercise works the abdominal muscles from a stable position and requires coordination that stimulates the brain. The simultaneous limb motion creates an image similar to a bug flipped on its back.
- Begin lying flat on a mat with back, legs and arms resting on the ground
- Raise your arms straight up, do not bend at the elbow
- Bend knees at a 90-degree angle and lift off the mat\
- In coordinated movements, bring your left arm back over your head while touching your right toe to the mat
- Return to the starting position and repeat using opposite limbs, reach your right arm back over your head and touch your left toe to the mat
Lying Hip Bridges
With an emphasis on core strength and controlled movement, lying hip bridges are a low impact way to engage the legs, lower back and stomach. Focus on smooth and gentle motions.
- From a lying position with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor, gently squeeze the glutes and push your hips into the air
- Using the feet to ground and support, hold the position for a few moments
- Maintaining control, slowly lower your body back to the starting position
Back Leg Raises
Back leg raises are a great option to strengthen leg muscles and require only a chair for balance. Aim to hold each position for one second.
- Stand behind a sturdy chair that will not slide or roll away
- Grabbing the back of the chair for support as needed, lift your right leg straight back without bending the knee and hold the position for one second
- Slowly bring your right leg back down and repeat the process with your left leg
Chair squats are an excellent option for inclusion in an exercise routine. Similar to other seated balance exercises for seniors, chair squats combine a natural action and use body weight resistance to build up core strength and work out the legs.
- Stand in front of a stable chair that will not slide or roll, align feet with hips
- Mimic a sitting action by bending at the knee, but keep shoulders and chest upright
- Continue to “sit” lowering your body toward the chair and maintaining the same form
- Just before sitting all the way down, push back up to return to a standing position, if necessary, rest briefly on the chair before returning to the standing position
Balance Exercises for Seniors
Balance problems for seniors are not an uncommon challenge. The risk of falls and resulting injuries is a common concern for many older adults and their families. Fortunately, there are numerous exercises to improve balance for seniors these can be combined with strength exercises to improve overall strength and conditioning.
How can an elderly person improve their balance?
Balance exercises target the core muscles to help seniors build strength in areas that have the greatest impact on balance and confident movement. Most balance exercises are about control versus rapid movement often a person’s own body weight resistance is the only equipment necessary.
Rock the Boat
Looking for tips on how to improve balance for seniors? Look no further than an afternoon boat ride for inspiration. While simple, the “rock the boat exercise” is easy to learn, practical and effective in promoting balance and confidence in maintaining balance.
- Stand with feet apart, aligned to hips and press weight firmly and evenly into both feet
- Shift the weight onto your left foot and lift your right foot, placing hands on hips to steady as needed
- Hold this position for as long as comfortable, working up to 30 seconds
- Lower your right foot to the ground maintaining control, shift the weight to your right foot and repeat, lifting your left foot this time
Flamingo Stand (Single Limb Stance)
A common element in balance training for seniors, the flamingo stand or single limb stance is a simple act of balancing on a single foot that nevertheless can have a powerful impact with regular practice.
- Standing near a steady chair or wall for support as needed, stand with feet shoulder-width apart and slowly raise one foot off the ground
- Angle that foot and place it against the opposite angle to create support for balance
- Hold the position for as long as comfortable, up to 10 seconds, using the chair or wall for stability and support
- Lower the raised foot, and repeat on the opposite side
Toe the Line
This exercise is as simple as heel-toe, heel-toe, but it requires focus and promotes balance and confident movement. Use a line of tape on the floor to guide movement and place the tape near a wall or railing to provide support during the exercise.
- Start in a standing position with your right foot on the line
- Move your left foot so that its heel touches the toe of the right foot
- Take a moment to steady, shifting the weight to the heels to ground
- Move the weight to the toes and repeat the motion, this time moving your right foot so the right heel touches the left toe
- Repeat, alternating feet for the duration of the exercise
Inspired by the circus act of daring balance, the tightrope walk exercise is all about balance and focused movement, albeit nearer the ground. Make sure to allow enough space to walk with arms fully extended to either side.
- Start in a comfortable standing position with feet firmly planted
- Raise both arms out to either side and hold straight at a 90-degree angle from the body
- Walk in a straight line with arms raised, as if on a tightrope, pause for a moment or two each time your back leg is lifted from the ground
- Repeat the movement, alternating leading feet for the duration of the exercise
Balance exercises should factor in the arms as well as the legs and the core. The clock reach is an ideal exercise for engaging the arms and requires only a chair and a bit of space to move.
- Stand behind a steady chair that won’t roll or slide with feet spread apart
- Imagine that point behind the chair is the center of a clock with 12 ahead and 6 behind
- Hold the chair and look straight ahead
- Lift your left leg with a slight bend of your knee and extend your left arm to point at the number 12
- Moving your left arm around the clock, next point at the number 9 and then number 6
- Return your left arm to the front, pausing again at the number 9 before coming to rest at the number 12 and lowering your left leg to the ground
- Repeat this motion on the right side, but moving the arm around the clock to the right, starting straight ahead at 12, then at 3, then at 6, before returning to the front
The most important first step for seniors and their caregivers is to recognize potential problems and be willing to deal with them. By taking steps to treat underlying issues and exercising, seniors can reduce their risk of falling or injury and build greater strength, balance and self-confidence.
The above article is for informational purposes only. Individuals should consult their doctor before starting any exercise regimen. For more information on how we promote wellness and help our residents remain active and healthy, explore our Vitality Club.