The components of physical fitness are cardio-respiratory endurance, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility and body composition. The skill related components of fitness are balance, agility, coordination, and power. Balance is the ability to maintain equilibrium both while standing and while moving. Balance is important for athletes in gymnastics, football, baseball and other sports, but it is also important for older adults who worry about injuries they may sustain from falling.
Fall risk is the result of deconditioning, not age. To assess your fall risk, stand on one leg without the support of the upper extremities and without bracing one leg on the other. Count the number of seconds you can maintain this position. Time is up when the foot touches the floor or an arm touches something for support. Your chance of falling and sustaining an injury is double if you are unable to perform the one legged stance for 5 seconds. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, balance training may reduce the risk of falling and fear of falling and probably reduces the number of falls. It is recommended that balance training be performed at least 3 times a week, and daily is better. Balance training can be performed either on land or in the pool.
A sample fall prevention strength program on land might include the following exercises: (1) Resisted row with a band, focusing on squeezing the shoulder blades together, to strengthen the upper back and core. (2) Toe scrunches to strengthen the toes. (3) Standing heel lifts to strengthen the calf muscles. (4) Deadlifts, focusing on avoiding bending the trunk, to strengthen the glutes and hamstrings. (5) Chair squats, that is sitting in a chair and standing back up again, and lunges, to strengthen the quads. Also work on walking fast. since the faster older adults can walk, the lower their mortality rate.
Ruth Sova wrote an article for Akwa magazine that described multiple exercises for improving balance in the pool. Here are a few examples: (1) Sit on a noodle like a swing with the feet on the pool floor; turn eyes to the right and hold 10 seconds, and then left. No head movement, only eyes. (2) Sit on a noodle like a swing with the feet on the pool floor and bend to the right further than is comfortable and recover. Notice what is used to recover (legs, head, jerking movement?) and try to use only the core muscles. (3) Sit on a noodle like a horse with the feet on the pool floor and walk forward with feet rolling heel to toe, and nothing moving but the legs. Stop and restart. Stop and walk backwards. (4) Squat with the feet together, with the feet apart, with one foot directly in front of the other, or in a lunge position. Add various arm movements using both arms or one arm. (5) Stand and lift your toes off the floor then roll up on your toes as the chin lowers. (6) Stand with your right heel on the floor and roll the outside edge of the foot to the tips of the toes while turning your head slowly to the left. Repeat with the left foot. (7) Weight shift from side to side and from front to back. (8) Walk on tiptoes, or on heels, or with toes out or toes in. (9) Use unpredictable commands, such as marching in place on tiptoes while circling the right arm. (10) Cross-country ski with the hands on the hips and travel sideways. If you are an AEA member, you can check out the article for more exercises.
The goal is not to be able to perform on a balance beam like Simone Biles. The goal is to avoid becoming one of the 2.8 million seniors who visit the emergency room each year because of a fall. And beyond that, balance training is good for the brain. Memory, language skills, problem solving and decision making are coordinated by the cerebrum. Balance, posture and fine motor skills are coordinated by the cerebellum. The cerebrum and cerebellum are connected by a direct neural link. When an older adult trains for strength and balance, cognition improves.
My resources for this article are Ruth Sova’s article “Seated and Standing, Static and Dynamic Balance” in the October/November 2019 issue of Akwa magazine and Exercise Etc. Inc.’s 2019 webinar “Balance & Fall Prevention.”
See you in the pool!