Improving Your Balance to Prevent Falls

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.

While I’d normally be highly skeptical of such advice from a nonprofessional without a degree in physical therapy, kinesiology, rehabilitation medicine or athletic training, one paragraph in Mr. Locker’s book won me over:

“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. Walking on a rocky Adirondack trail, where both legs are constantly bent to maintain balance, is weight-bearing.”

I immediately related to this description. I spent most of last summer in the lower Catskills, where I trekked with my dog on uneven paths over rocks and roots for an hour or more every other morning. During the first two weeks of July, I felt very unsteady and fell twice. But I became more secure with each outing, and by summer’s end my balance and stability had noticeably improved. Even when jostled by a dog while standing on a rocky surface, I easily remained stable and erect.

While many people are not in a position to train their postural muscles by hiking in the woods, Mr. Locker describes exercises that people can do safely at home using their own bodies for equipment. No gym or machine, not even an exercise band, is needed. Basically, the feet learn to be more firmly connected to the ground while the body weight moves within a base of support.

“In tai chi,” Mr. Locker noted, “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.”

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.

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