The loss of our ability to balance is an especially frustrating aspect of getting older - and a potentially scary one.
When a fall could easily result in a trip to the doctor, or even require surgery, staying upright on your own two feet becomes a rather pressing issue. Unfortunately, there are a lot of factors working against our balance system as we age - from our vision to the muscles which support our bodies, everything takes a hit.
But there’s also good news: Yoga is a one-stop shop for training this vital skill and improving your quality of life.
What Is Balance?
Balance is a rather complex skill. A multitude of sensations, calculations and movements must be skillfully combined in order for us to walk, stand and even sit without falling over.
This essential feature of our daily lives requires careful orchestration of sensory input - from the eyes, body and specialized receptors in the inner ear - and motor outputs which direct the muscles of both our body and eyes in response to the information gathered. (1)
Deep inside our inner ear lies a specialized set of organs called the Vestibular System.
Three semi-circular canals, along with two accessory structures provide your brain with information about the position of your head: together they are able to detect the direction of motion, and even if your head is tilted or straight. (2)
Our eyes play an integral role in our ability to balance: about 20% of the nerves originating in the eyes interact with those in the vestibular system. (3)
While our brain does use other feedback in order to make judgments regarding our body’s position, there is no denying it is harder to stand on one foot with your eyes closed than open (Don’t believe me? Try it!).
This is why cleverly concocted optical illusions have the ability to leave us feeling completely disoriented. Interactive displays, such as The Crazy Kitchen at Canada’s Science and Technology museum, can provide us with a first-hand experience of just how much our balance system relies on the information we’re receiving from our eyes.
Within our muscles, joints, tendons and skin there are special sensors called “proprioceptors:” they respond to stretching and pressure, letting your brain know where your legs and feet are positioned in relationship to the ground and your head relative to your shoulders. (2)
Our ability to track these subtle sensations is what allows us to know where our body is in space, even when blindfolded.
All of these intricate systems must be in working order for us to navigate our world while remaining upright, and any disruption of these signals can result in missteps and falls.
Why Does It Decline With Age?
Many factors contribute to the decline of balance: all the components of this finely calibrated system are targets of the aging process.
As we discussed, any disruption in of our visual system will greatly impact our ability to balance. Cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration are all common age-related vision problems.
These conditions lead to complications in our eyes’ ability to send accurate information to the brain about our position, causing dizziness and disorientation.
Disorders of the Inner Ear
Those tiny, sensitive nerve cells that make up your vestibular system begin to drop in number after the age of 55, and continue to deteriorate over the rest of our lifetime. (4) At the same time, blood flow to the area begins to decrease.
Vertigo often results from the deterioration of the vestibular system in the inner ear. This disorder can be both severe or mild, resulting in sensations of spinning and disorientation as the brain struggles to make sense of the distorted/incomplete signals it is receiving. (4)
With age, our muscles lose both mass and function, affecting their ability to perform as well as their strength. (5) Since our muscles are an integral part of the balance system - carrying out the minute changes in position necessary to maintain proper balance - it goes to say that preserving muscle tone is paramount to good balance.
While some muscle loss is due to a natural decline associated with the aging process, (6) a more significant contributor is an overall lack of physical activity. As we get older we tend to live a more sedentary lifestyle, but this isn’t doing us any favors when it comes to preserving balance.
Over 50% of people over the age of 65 have some form of arthritis, (7) with knee osteoarthritis affecting upwards of 30%. (8) Research indicates that knee OA may be responsible for accelerating the deterioration of the balance system by decreasing leg muscle strength and impairing the proprioceptive receptors in the knee joints.
Other forms of arthritis may have a similar effect, depending on which joint they are causing issues in. Additionally, certain forms of rheumatoid arthritis can cause inflammation of the various structures of the eyes, thus distorting vision similarly to the visual disorders mentioned above. (9)
Issues with balance can also occur as a side-effect from many of the medications commonly prescribed to older adults. These include medications for hypertension, antidepressants, diuretics, vasodilators, and certain pain-killers. (10)
If you are experiencing serious side-effects due to a medication prescribed to you discuss your options with your doctor. However, training your balance with yoga may help mitigate the impact of these side-effects.
How Yoga Works And How It Can Help To Improve Your Balance
Yoga is a great way to increase your activity level, tone muscles and ease aching joints, all while working on your balance. Both enjoyable and gentle, yoga has emerged as the activity of choice for many older adults.
Yoga includes certain poses which are directly intended to target your sense of balance, these “proprioceptive exercises” train both your body and your brain - challenging your sensory and motor system to perform under specific conditions that can later be applied to everyday activities.
A study in Neuroscience Letters examined the role of proprioceptive exercises in improving balance in a group of subjects over the age of 60. The researchers found that these specialized activities produced the greatest effect when compared to other fitness routines. (11)
The National Strength & Conditioning Association conducted a study looking into the effect of a short-term yoga program on balance in a group of young adults. They recorded a remarkable 228% improvement in balancing ability. (12)
By working on your balance in a safe, controlled manner you’re not only rebuilding the skills necessary to maintain proper balance, but - perhaps more significantly - building up your confidence in yourself.
A study by Nick et al. measured yoga’s effect on both balancing ability as well as fear of falling. They found that, alongside improvements in balance, practicing yoga biweekly for 8 weeks led to a significant reduction in participants’ subjective fear of falling. (15)
Yoga can also help reduce the probability and impact of falls by addressing a variety of complementary functions:
Faster reaction time
Being able to respond faster when falling can mean the difference between crashing to the floor or grabbing onto a surface to steady oneself.
Performing exercises which require coordinating breath with movement - as in Yoga - has been demonstrated to increase reaction times, thus prompting researchers to recommend these practices for improving neuro-muscular abilities. (16)
Yogic breathing exercises have also proven to increase response times by helping to inhibit our reactions to unnecessary, distractive stimuli. (17)
As a low-impact, weight-bearing exercise yoga is beneficial for both preventing bone loss due to osteoporosis, as well as increasing bone density in regular practitioners.
In fact, research has shown that performing just 12-minutes of yoga per day is sufficient to reverse osteoporotic bone loss. One study found that bone mineral density increased in the spine, hips and femurs of all 227 participants. (18)
Increased mental function
Yoga may help you avoid situations which cause falls in the first place by improving mental clarity.
Meditation has been proven to help preserve mental function as we age. Prakash et al. observed that a longtime meditators outperformed non-meditators on a variety tests of mental function, including memory and attention. (19)
Practicing yoga can help reduce the inflammation associated with arthritis. In fact, yoga can have long term effects in preserving joint mobility and function, as well as reducing pain. Since we know that arthritis can decrease our ability to balance, yoga is a great way to help moderate its impact.
Research performed at the Ohio State University in Columbus tested the level of inflammatory blood markers in a group of 50 healthy women. They found that those who practiced yoga regularly had far lower levels of these inflammation-causing proteins than the novice yoga practitioners. (20)
Additionally, a group of scientists in India found that yoga increases the body’s production of inflammation-fighting cytokines. (21) Thus yoga provides a two-fold benefit for those suffering from inflammatory diseases.
A stroke can affect any one or multiple components of your balance system, leading to issues in stability and posture. Following a stroke, you may experience weakness on one side of your body, a loss of sensation, a lack of concentration or even injury to the brain itself. (22)
A study published in Stroke - journal by the American Heart Association - examined the effectiveness of yoga in recalibrating balance following a stroke, with a group of 47 chronic stroke patients participated in an 8-week modified yoga program. Those who practiced yoga a minimum of two times per week had significant improvement in their balance as measured on the Berg Balance Scale. (23)
Now that you understand what your balance system does you can appreciate how training it can help improve your ability to perform many daily tasks, and alleviating common complaints including dizziness, feeling lightheaded and nausea.
6 Yoga Poses To Improve Balance
1. Mountain Pose
Don’t let the simplicity of this pose fool you, Mountain Pose is an ideal way to bring your body into proper alignment, improving posture and balance.
- Stand with your feet hip distance apart, feeling all four sides of your feet planted firmly on the ground. This is your foundation.
- Allow your arms to fall along the sides of your body, palms facing forwards and gently reaching through your fingertips to activate the muscles.
- Activate your legs by creating a subtle inward rotation of the thighs.
- Bring your hips to a neutral position by tugging the belly button in towards your spine.
- Allow your shoulders to relax away from your ears and gently tuck the sternum in.
2. Downward Dog
There are two ways you can do this pose, either on the floor or using a chair to support your upper body if that is more accessible for you.
- With a chair a few feet in front of you, bend at your hips elongating the spine and arms to place your hands on the seat shoulder width apart.
- Adjust your feet so that they too are hips distance apart.
- Roll your shoulders back away from your ears activating the muscles in your arms and upper back.
- If necessary bend your knees - the main focus of this pose is to have a long spine from the tip of your head to your tailbone.
If entering this pose on the floor, come to hands and knees and press your legs back to form an inverted V-shape. Follow the same cues your alignment.
This pose requires quite a bit of strength in its traditional form; however, it can be easily modified so that anyone can reap its benefits.
- Stand with your back against a wall and bring your feet approximately one foot forward keeping them hips width apart.
- Allow the arms to fall on either side of the body.
- You may wish to place a small exercise ball or a rolled up towel between your legs to help stabilize them.
- Pressing your back into the wall gently slide your back down the wall to lower your hips as if you were sitting in a chair.
- Pull the bellybutton in towards your spine.
4. Crescent Lunge
This one sounds more complicated than it is. Once again this pose can be performed with or without a wall or chair to help stabilize.
- Standing with your feet hips distance apart, step one leg back.
- Here you can choose to place the back ankle against a wall, with the ball of the foot firmly planted on the floor.
- Alternately, you may wish to place a chair next to the side of your body so that you can hold onto it for support.
- Gently bend the front knee, careful to not let it extend past the toes.
- You can either keep the back leg straight as possible, or drop the knee to rest on the floor.
- Place your hands on your hips or reach them over the head.
- Firm the belly, pulling bellybutton to spine.
5. Tree Pose
Tree pose is an example of one of yoga’s “balance poses.” While the full posture involves quite a bit of skill, there are many steps along the way to suit everyone’s ability. If needed, keep a chair nearby to help you balance.
- Begin in mountain pose. The way we enter a balance posture is our foundation for success: ensure you feel grounded and stable here before moving onto one foot.
- Slowly lift your right foot and attempt to bring the bottom of the foot to touch the inner side of the left shin.
- Gently press your foot into your shin, and your shin into your foot.
- Maintain the upper body alignment of mountain pose, place the hands on your hips or bring the arms parallel with the floor.
If with time balancing with the foot low on the shin become easy, slowly bring the foot higher up on the leg - however, never place the foot against the side of the knee, only below or above.
While these 5 poses are a great place to start, incorporating a complete yoga practice into your weekly routine is the optimum way for you to experience all the benefits yoga has to offer.
6. Eye Yoga
Since your eyes are such an important component of your balance system, why not pay them special attention with some specialized yoga exercises.
Many of the issues with vision that crop up with age are due to a loss of tone and flexibility in the muscles surrounding the eyes -- hence it intuitively makes sense that performing exercises that target this area will help improve vision.
Eye Yoga uses a variety of simple activities, such as massaging particular pressure points on the face, moving the eyes in all directions and using the heat of the hands to warm the muscles. (24)
Get Back On Your Feet
Yoga will not only help to improve your balancing ability, but also restore your confidence in yourself. Even practicing just once per week is enough to bring about real changes in your body and mind.
The benefits of this ancient practice go far beyond recalibrating our balance system; in fact, taking on a yoga practice is one of the most meaningful changes seniors can make to improve their overall health and fitness.