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Balancing act: Touchmark creates program to improve people’s balance

December 27, 2018

Patricia Volk was using a cane when she started a 10-week course for improved balance.

She walked out of a final Dec. 12 class for Aspire to Better Balance without her cane. Volk and 10 people did one-hour sessions with guided skills and strength-building activities each Wednesday at Touchmark on the South Hill.

Volk, 75, doesn’t live at Touchmark’s retirement community but is a South Hill resident, so she signed up with a fee for the class. The course includes individual balance assessments by fitness instructors at the start of the course and again after it’s completed.

“Balance is an issue for people from birth to death,” Volk said. “You can need a little tuneup on your balance.

“As I aged, I needed a little help. First, you have to program your brain, and that is what this program does, and then it goes into your physical retraining.”

Overall, the Touchmark course offers activities that start on a small scale but push seniors to work on balance skills and better posture to avoid falls, a health risk for many elderly people.

Several fitness specialists and staff act as spotters in the classes and stand near participants, offering an extra hand until their balance improves.

“Part of our balance assessment uses a computerized assessment tool,” said Lori McCormick, Touchmark’s director of fitness who developed the program. She also is a physical therapist.

“With that tool, we’re able to look at how a person moves and where specifically their balance issues are. Then in the class setting, we can direct what that person needs to do in order to improve their balance.”

The Dec. 12 final session had people go through different games set up in a large exercise room. They included a pseudo creek crossing created by two blue tape lines on the floor, with a width at the base of 1 foot that increased to 3 feet.

Participants were asked to step over starting at the narrow width, turn and step again across increasingly wider sections.

“You’re working your way down the creek, and it’s going to get wider, so don’t get your feet wet,” Bill Jennings, a Touchmark fitness specialist, told the group. He also is a certified clinical exercise physiologist.

Another area had a rock-hopping course, a series of rubber-like shapes spaced as if they were river stepping stones, and participants maneuvered from one to the other. However, they could grab a nearby ballet bar if needed.

“We want everyone to be safe, so when you’re done with rock-hopping, we’re going to our obstacle course,” Jennings said. People had to step up on other foam blocks and go under certain obstacles such as ribbons hung from the ceiling.

Participants also played circle soccer, which had them stand in a circle and stop the ball with one foot – requiring balance – before kicking it to another person. Members later sat on stability balls to work with a partner, pulling on opposite ends of a stretchable exercise tube.

Those type of movements help a person develop more stability in core muscles, which are in the pelvis, lower back, hips and abdomen.

Jennings said core muscles are key for balance as are other factors. “Just about everything we do is challenging three things – vision, awareness of body in space and the vestibular (inner ear system affecting balance).

A final activity had people stand a distance apart to create two lines facing each other. They took turns as the “walker” who strolled down the center of the column as people on each side moved across and deliberately in front of the walker. It forced participants to walk steadily and adjust slightly as people got in their path, such as in a busy store.

“This final class was intended to be games, but in prior classes, they worked on individual balance skills,” McCormick said. “The games were sort of like a graduation day to be able to demonstrate they had improved balance enough, and also, what was important was balance confidence.

“They could play the games and not think about balance, but they were showing better balance.”

Volk echoed that the classes at first required much smaller moves and incremental steps.

“And you will fail,” she said. “You need someone who is going to be there to catch you until you can get the movement. For me, it has taken me off my cane. It’s opened up pathways in my life.”

She also equated her improved balance from the program to the joy little kids feel when they’re just learning to walk. “I know of no other program here that does this. I’ve had a lot of physical therapy. This has really been successful.”

Mary Haugen, 79, also took the class. She told the group she had read a Harvard Health article about falls and fractures among seniors.

“Ninety percent of the hip breaks are caused by falls,” she said. “It gives you pause to how critical balance is.”

McCormick offers these general tips for improved balance:

Remember that good posture is important for balance. Check your posture from the ankles up — knees over ankles, hips over knees, shoulders above hips and ear lobes above shoulders.

Stay strong. Strength accounts for about 40 percent of balance, McCormick said. Both strength and flexibility are needed in the ankles, feet, legs and in the muscles of the torso, including the abdominal muscles and back.

She suggests these ankle and leg strengthening exercises: You raise up on your tip-toes, then put weight on your heels and lift your toes off the floor. Keep your posture tall and hold on to something stationary if needed. Repeat 10 times. To strengthen the leg, stand up from a firm, stable chair and sit back down 10 times using your hands as little as possible.

Stand tall when walking and look forward at a vertical eye level, not down. This helps your brain know where vertical is, and it keeps you inner ears that are part of your balance system oriented to gravity. “When you look down, you’re looking at a moving target,” McCormick said.

Challenge your balance in a safe way that improves it. If exercises are too easy, your balance won’t get better. McCormick tells her students, “Hold on as much as you need to for safety; hold on as little as you need to for challenge.”

Incorporate work on your balance daily. While brushing your teeth, for example, practice standing balanced on one foot or you can balance on both feet with your eyes closed.

Practice weight shifting slowly side to side with your feet hip width apart. Keep your shoulders level. Notice the changes in pressure under your feet. “Many falls occur while shifting weight.”

Try an exercise class to stay strong and to continue working on balance.

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