A neglected aspect of fitness that becomes more important with aging is balance. This is another area where decline occurs with age, and makes older people more likely to fall. Young people can stand on one foot with their eyes closed easily for a minute. I can do it for about 10 seconds. I knew my balance had gotten worse, but it was driven home to me last summer on a hike. Our group came to the informal bridge shown. There were two logs about 4 inches in diameter, one slightly lower than the other, but otherwise stable. In crossing this I was one of the worst in the group, which included people a few years older than me.
Balance probably declines worse than other physical capacities with age, maybe because it is a downward spiral. As it degrades, we unconsciously get more timid about challenging it. Fortunately, as I read in Jim Klopman’s book Balance is Power , it responds quickly to training. Jim has some brain symptoms from concussions he suffered from falls in thrill sports in his youth decades ago. He improved his own symptoms dramatically with advanced balance training, and consulted with brain health expert Dr. Daniel Amen, author of many self-help books on the brain including The Brain Warrior’s Way.
Dr. Amen feels that balance training is an important tool for using neuro-plasticity (the ability of the brain to make new connections, no matter how old we are) to heal the brain. Balance is Power has 3 levels of training, and it only took me a couple of days to get a lot better at level I and proceed into level II. With continued progress this has spilled over into my hiking, mountain biking, and other activities. One activity that I recommend adding to Jim’s suggestions is the walking lunge. This is a good way to build leg strength but also requires good balance. Watching contestants at the recent Crossfit games making lunges look easy while holding heavy kettlebells overhead inspired me to try it (without the kettlebells, at least for now 🙂 ). As expected I found it to be a good test from a strength standpoint, but also surprisingly challenging for balance.
Another good balance challenge for me is stand-up paddling. When you’re just starting out on a SUP it feels awkward to stand up. You start out on your knees, and rock back onto your toes so you’re in a full squat position. then you just stand up, pushing down with your hands on the board for a little more stability. It is amazing how awkward that feels at first. The board is actually quite stable, but you don’t trust it at first. For me it felt wobbly side to side. When I took my first class my legs were starting to shake. Then I got an interesting tip from my instructor- “relax your feet!” I think I was trying unconsciously to grip the board with my toes. When I relaxed them I felt more stable, and soon was paddling around comfortably.
But I find if I’ve been away from it a few months the awkward wobbly feeling returns the first time back. So I prepare for it with an unstable surface like a mattress. If I can do squats on that, then the SUP board feels a lot more stable when I get back on it.
Klopman, J, Miller, J, Balance is Power: Improve Your Body’s Balance to Perform Better, Live Longer, and Look Younger, Lioncrest Publishing, 2016