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In balance

Simple exercises every week keep 94-year-old steady and fall-free

Kiyoko Higashi of Kaimuki was walking in her neighborhood recently when she tripped — but she didn't fall. This might not be remarkable except for her age: 94.

When people reach their 90s, and for some, even their 60s, 70s or 80s, falls are frequent and can often spell disaster. A wrong step off a curb can end in a broken arm, leg, elbow or hip, surgery or a hospital stay, and, in the worst-case scenario, life in a wheelchair. A simple slip in a bathtub can result in broken bones or a fractured skull.

The National Safety Council reports that one in three people over the age of 65 fall each year, making falls the leading cause of injuries among seniors. This can lead to loss of confidence, causing them to avoid activities that may require walking, stairs or uneven surfaces such as sand at the beach.

It's a vicious cycle because being overly cautious can exacerbate the problem: restricting activities leads to weakened muscles, which can increase the chances of falling.

So what saved Higashi from a terrible fall? Her balance training. Once a week for the past year, Higashi has worked to improve her balance with Li Si Yang, a personal trainer and owner of Journey to Fitness. Their focus is on functional exercises, workouts that mimic everyday activities. They also strengthen Higashi's core, which ultimately leads to improved balance. The goal is to keep the 94-year-old as independent as possible.

We asked Higashi, under the guidance of Yang, to demonstrate five simple balance exercises that anyone can do at home. As with every exercise program, we recommend you check with your physician before trying these exercises.

1. Stand on one leg.

Begin with one hand on a chair, counter or other stable surface. Lift one leg and try to stand while balancing on the other leg. As your balance improves, try to place just two fingers on the stable surface, next graduating to one finger and finally no hands. No time for exercise, you say? Yang suggests multitasking, performing this exercise while brushing your teeth.

2. Stand on a slightly unstable, soft surface.

Fold a yoga mat, bath mat or towel and stand on it with both feet firmly planted. When ready, graduate by lifting one foot.

3. Walk backward

Older people often develop a shuffle instead of a stride. They also tend to lean forward and slump their shoulders, creating posture problems. Yang recommends walking backward with as long strides as possible to help correct these postural issues and to improve balance.

4. Take longer strides.

As we age, our steps often grow shorter. Practice walking with long strides and pay attention to keeping your core (abdominal muscles) active while walking. This will help your body remember how to walk properly, as well as helping you catch yourself if you start to fall.

5. Place one foot on a water bottle.

Stand on one foot and place the other foot on a water bottle. Roll the water bottle back and forth from the arch of your foot to the heel. When beginning this exercise, you may need to hold on to a chair or other stable surface.

Reach Paula Rath at paularath@aol.com.

In your voice

Read reactions to this story
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NickSnarko wrote:
Great article... I'm a nursing assistant and this should be taught to all the elderly. Falls are very common and can lead to death or permanent disability, whether the person is living independently or in a nursing home.
I just wish the editor of that page just reduced the size of the headline so the entire article fit in one space (instead of breaking to Page 4).
01/29/2009 9:52:10 p.m.
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