All in the Balance

Preserving your balance is a whole-body experience

Source: Harvard Health Publishing | July/August 2019

Good balance is key to preventing potentially disabling falls. It takes active coordination of many systems in the body to achieve good balance, but beginning in your 50s, you may start noticing subtle changes that can lead to difficulties. It’s important to identify factors — such as inner ear problems, illnesses, medications, changes to your gait, weight gain or loss, pain, or foot problems — that might affect your balance and look for solutions.

How gait affects balance

Gait encompasses the many distinct features that make up the way a person walks. Gait includes pacing, the length of the stride, the swing of the leg to put the foot forward, the shift of balance from one leg to the other, how the foot is planted (toe first, heel first), and how the weight is distributed through the step. Your gait is as distinctive as your voice and fingerprints, and even subtle changes to the way you walk can increase the risk of falls.

Gait often changes with age. For example, healthy people in their 70s generally have a 10 per cent to 20 per cent reduction in the speed of their gait and the length of their stride compared with healthy people in their 20s. There are often other, subtler changes as well — such as using less force when you push off or stooping more when you walk.

How to fall without injury

Most of our instinctive actions when we start to fall are more likely to get us hurt. You can’t always avoid a fall, but you can reduce the injury it may cause.

Plan for a soft landing

Simple trips over curbs or small objects — often our own shoes or clothing — are common occurrences. Aside from taking the steps to prevent them, when you feel yourself going down, you can take control of your fall. Fall prevention courses may be available in your community. These courses that will show you not only how to prevent falls but how to fall safely.

You can also try the following techniques:

  • Think of yourself as a pilot and use the two to three seconds going down to actively plan a soft landing.
  • Lean forward into the fall — this gives you some control over direction.
  • Fall sideways, if possible.
  • Aim toward open areas and toward grass or dirt rather than concrete.
  • Aim away from other people and away from objects that can cause puncture wounds or fractures.
  • Swing your arms sideways to direct your fall.
  • Twist your shoulder to protect your head.
  • Keep your knees bent and your feet down.
  • Fall like a sack of beans — relax everything.
  • Fall on the soft, fleshy places, like your butt and thighs. These areas have more protection and are lower to the ground.
  • As you complete the fall, try to roll to your side in a ball. This will spread the impact to reduce injury and stop you from rolling further.