Last week, I discussed the challenge of maintaining balance to avoid falls as we get up in years. Good reaction time and muscular strength are prerequisites.
You must be able to react instantly to situations that threaten your balance, and your muscles must be able to accept the challenge of this instant reaction. If either of these is deficient, falls are likely.
Another player in this scenario is the cardiovascular system, which controls blood flow to the brain. All of us have experienced being dizzy on occasion when we quickly shift posture.
You are stretched out on the bed and the doorbell rings. You jump to your feet and experience a moment of dizziness, but it passes quickly. What just happened?
You forced your cardiovascular system to make an instantaneous adjustment. You shifted from a circumstance in which the blood was flowing easily back to the heart from your legs because your legs and heart were on the same level while lying. Then, suddenly, you jumped up and the blood has to combat gravity to return to the heart.
This requires the heart to beat more forcefully, and the blood vessels must constrict to help push the blood along. If these changes are not instantaneous, there will be a lapse in blood flow to the brain.
The dizziness you feel is the brain trying to decide if the momentary lapse of blood flow is serious or not. If it is, the dizziness will increase and you will faint. Fainting causes you to fall, returning to the more-helpful position of having your legs and heart on the same level. Thus, fainting is your body’s way of trying to be helpful. But, of course, falling can hurt you in a variety of ways.
With this in mind, it’s possible to lose your balance simply because your cardiovascular system is not able to make changes quickly enough. Combine this with a compromised reaction time and/or limited muscular strength, and you can see many factors can be the root cause of a fall. Unfortunately, each of these factors tends to deteriorate with age.
Use it or lose it
The adage “use it or lose it” is applicable here. The more you tax your body and force it to perform, the more able it is to respond. Exercise challenges the nerves, muscles and cardiovascular system in a variety of ways.
Resistance exercise helps maintain balance by keeping your muscles strong. Engaging in complex and challenging physical movements that are common in sporting activities such as tennis, catching and throwing, dancing and so forth are great for promoting reaction time. Brisk walking and jogging, swimming, cycling and other aerobic activities are great for keeping the cardiovascular system in top shape.
People who exercise regularly are known to be physiologically younger than their sedentary counterparts. This means if I exercise, I can hold on to much of my ability, and at the chronological age of 70, I may have the physiologic ability of a 45-year-old.
Unfortunately, the reverse also is true and is much more prevalent in our society. The typical 45-year-old American is likely to be much older physiologically than his age might suggest.
Body fat counts, too
Too much body fat also can be a factor in losing balance. Additional body fat means that if I am thrown off balance by even a little bit, the extra weight creates additional momentum that is hard to stop. Thus, a thinner person may momentarily lose balance, but is likely to recover more quickly, avoiding a fall. Too much body fat is related to lack of exercise, which compounds the consequences of “losing it from not using it.”
The bottom line
Maintaining your balance when it is challenged likely depends in large part on factors influenced by how much exercise you do regularly. Exercise helps reaction time, muscular strength and cardiovascular adjustments, and it keeps you leaner.
This, then, is the simple formula for success in aging when it comes to avoiding falls. It’s the same old advice I seem to give for everything. Take a brisk walk every day, climb stairs and lift some light dumbbells, and carefully choose the foods you eat.
It’s never too late to start. Research tells us you can improve at any age.
Bryant Stamford is professor and chairman of the department of exercise science at Hanover (Ind.) College. Address questions or suggestions to “The Body Shop,” The Courier-Journal, P.O. Box 740031, Louisville, KY 40201-7431.