Fitness Magazine

Balance and Aging (and Yoga)

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Nina

Balance and Aging (and Yoga)

Old Man in a Tail-Coat

At the age of 90, my father became very weak and soon after that he began to fall repeatedly, even when he’s just try to get out of bed. At that point, I literally had to hire someone to be with him 24/7 just to make sure he wouldn’t fall again and seriously injure himself. (Can I take a moment to thank once again the daytime caregiver I ended up hiring? You did so much more than keep my dad safe—your caring attention and the things you encouraged my dad to do during his last days made my dad’s life better.) Although my dad had a particular set of conditions that was causing both the weakness and poor balance, I think we all know that problems with falls—and worrying about falling—are common in older people. This is because aging affects all three of your balance systems (see How We Balance), as well as your ability to respond quickly and appropriately to balance challenges. But because so many factors contribute to your ability to balance, you can often compensate for losses in one area by cultivating other aspects of balance. So let’s take a closer look at how aging affects each of those factors and which ones you can influence with your yoga practice. In general, however, a well-rounded asana practice that includes strength, flexibility, and agility practices as well as a wide variety of balancing poses, will help you maintain your ability to balance as you age. Vestibular System. Our inner ear functions—including balance as well as hearing—gradually decline with age. The ear contains moving parts (hair cells), which are unable to repair themselves and gradually die off. And typically by the age of 80 around half of inner ear function is lost. Although you cannot change this, you can compensate for these losses by working on other aspects of balance, including your somatic sensory system and your four essential physical skills. Vision System. Age-related changes to the lenses of your eyes make it harder to focus quickly. In addition, the development of cataracts from years of sunlight exposure and a variety of other eye conditions that become more common as we age, such as loss of peripheral vision, glaucoma and macular degeneration, negatively affect vision. Of course, for eye conditions that are helped by prescription glasses, wearing the glasses when you need to/want to balance can help compensate for these losses. For conditions that glasses cannot help, you can compensate for these losses by using your vestibular and somantic sensory systems to balance yourself (after all, blind people can balance). You can also work on improving your somatic sensory system and your four essential physical skills. Somatic Sensory System. Because aging may cause slower messaging between your brain and body, this can affect both your proprioception (your awareness of where you are in space) and your exteroception (your ability take in information about the surface you’re balancing on). In addition, a sedentary lifestyle or lack of variety in movement can reduce proprioception over time, causing you to lose balance when you make an unusual movement. And little or no time spend barefoot can reduce your exteroception, causing you to be less aware of the surface on which you are balancing (or walking). But regularly practicing a wide-variety of asanas while focusing on your internal sensations can help improve proprioception, and practicing standing and balancing poses with bare feet will help your feet become more sensitive and responsive. Strength. As we discussed in Latest Info on Muscle and Bone Strength, age-related muscle atrophy causes loss of strength over time. This loss of strength affects your ability to balance because if you get knocked off balance, you can’t easily move back into balance. But as you know by now, you can maintain your strength through a well-rounded yoga practice and this will help your ability to balance as well. Flexibility. As we discussed in  Flexibility and Aging, your muscles and joints become stiffer with age, so your range of motion is reduced. This stiffness can affect your ability to balance because you can’t easily move from one position to another, and can be knocked off balance more easily and will have a harder time moving back into balance afterward. But as you know by now, you can maintain your flexibility through a well-rounded yoga practice and this will help your ability to balance as well. Nervous System. Age-related changes in your nerves can cause them to pass messages more slowly between your brain and body. And this slowing of reaction time can affect your coordination and speed of movement, as well as the strength of your muscle responses, all of which will affect your balance. You can counteract this slowing of reaction times by working on agility practices, initially starting at a slower pace and gradually increasing your increasing your speed over time. Brain. Although balance is typically an unconscious response, practicing balancing poses to improve balance requires mental concentration. So age-related changes that cause your brain to slow down and work less efficiently can influence your ability to improve your balance. You can counteract some of these changes through practices that foster brain health, including exercise, sleeping well, and continued learning (see How to Foster Brain Health with Yoga). Meditation should be especially helpful as you can use the practice to intentionally cultivate the ability to maintain focus.For information about improving balance, see Techniques for Improving Balance.Subscribe to Yoga for Healthy Aging by Email ° Follow Yoga for Healthy Aging on Facebook ° Join this site with Google Friend Connect

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