Running in the 'Meda: A question of balance

Running in the 'Meda: A question of balance

Marty Beene

Last week, only a few days after reading about 80-year-old Fremont resident Irene Obera setting three age group world indoor track records, my 84-year-old father-in-law called me and mentioned that he was feeling that his balance was a little off. He asked me if there were any exercises he could do to help him out.

It reminded me how unusual Ms. Obera's amazing accomplishments were, and how most people in their 80s are (and perhaps, should be) mostly just concerned with not falling down.

It turns out that there are some very simple exercises that anyone can do to help with their balance, whether they are 80 years old, younger, or even older. In fact, the National Academy of Sports Medicine training approach recommends that the initial training step for anyone is stabilization, i.e., balance. Working on your balance is not only good for avoiding falling down, but is also good for both fitness-related activities and just moving around doing day-to-day things.

By the way, it is important to note that people of any age can improve their strength and fitness (and balance). While there may be certain medical conditions that preclude exercise, there is no age at which it's "too late" to start a fitness program.

The easiest initial exercise to help anyone improve their balance is simply standing on one foot. Of course, you should definitely do this with something to grab onto in case you start to tip over. One suggestion is to stand between the backs of two chairs so that your support is literally an inch or two from your hands. The exercise involves raising one foot for a minute. Or half a minute. Or two minutes - whatever time frame works for you initially. Then switch to standing on the other foot. Repeat this so that you do three to five repetitions, and gradually increase the balancing time from day to day. Each day that you do this, the muscles that are responsible for helping you keep your balance will get stronger so that they are ready to do the job when called upon to do so in a real life situation.

What about when this simple exercise is too easy?

Once you have mastered this basic balancing exercise, you can progress to the next level. This "next level" could take many forms. Some trainers will recommend doing a similar balancing exercise on an unstable surface. I like to have people try some slightly different positions and do some other things while on one foot before moving to an unstable surface. You can raise your leg higher (say, so your thigh is parallel to the floor); do some bicep curls with hand weights or water bottles (both arms together first; then alternating arms); step up onto a stair; or even raise yourself up onto your tippy-toe.

Is that it? Even that seems too easy.

Well, yes and no. The simple exercises described above will have a noticeable effect on your balance in a very short time - as little as a couple of weeks. To truly master balance, though, especially if you want to optimize whatever fitness activity you enjoy, the key is to strengthen your "core." Many people mistakenly think this means only their abdominal muscles ("abs"), but your core actually includes all of your muscles from below your hips up to your chest. There are many excellent core strengthening exercises that are easy to do (well, okay, simple to do), and I plan to write about them from time to time.

In the meantime, as I often tell my high school student-athletes before a run on a muddy, slippery trail, "Stay vertical!"

Marty Beene, a National Academy of Sports Medicine certified personal trainer and specialist in senior fitness and fitness nutrition, is owner of Be The Runner; he trains adults of all abilities individually and in groups. Marty can be reached at marty@BeTheRunner.com.