Aging and balance: Good news, bad news

Here's the bad news. Along with the visible signs of aging, and the obvious declines in the cardiovascular, respiratory, and orthopedic systems, your body is slowly assembling a collection of deficits that significantly reduce your ability to maintain balance. A decrease in balance ability, if nothing else, can increase your risk of acute running injuries such as sprains and falls.

Changes that occur with age

Balance is a matter of collecting information from the environment on where your body is in space and how its position is changing, and then responding with adjustments by your musculoskeletal system. Age-related changes occur in the sensory, motor, cognitive, and musculoskeletal systems, all affecting your ability to perceive and process the necessary environmental cues, and to respond quickly and efficiently to the information.

Visual acuity, depth perception, contrast sensitivity, and peripheral vision decline with age and these changes reduce or alter the environmental data your brain uses to maintain balance.

Meanwhile, your sensitivity to tactile messages, such as vibration and sensory input from the soles of your feet, is also declining, causing you to rely more on your decreased visual abilities.

At the same time, the tiny hair cells within the vestibular system are becoming less sensitive to head motion, diminishing the response of the ocular reflex that stabilizes your eyes. Imagine a roller coaster, for example. These balance deficits are probably the main reason you will almost never see individuals beyond 60 or so, riding a roller coaster for fun.

There is good news, however. First of all, runners and other athletic individuals, probably suffer these declines more slowly than their sedentary contemporaries. Even better, there is still more you can do to slow declines in balance ability.

Test your balance

To test your balance, try standing on one leg with your arms folded over the raised leg, knee tucked toward your chest, for 30 seconds. You should be able to do this without dropping the raised leg or hopping around. Next, if you felt reasonably stable on one leg, try 30 seconds with your eyes closed. Now try standing on both feet, with one foot directly in front of the other, heel touching toes. Repeat with your eyes closed.

If nothing else, you will learn just how important visual cues are in maintaining balance. Exercises that challenge the multiple systems your body uses for balance, such as the two tests above, can slow age-related declines and even improve balance significantly, whatever your starting point.

Strength train for balance

One of the very best things you can do to improve and maintain balance is to use free weights for strength training. Lifting free weights requires attention to posture and form, while core-stabilizing muscles continuously adjust to the motion of the weights. Using a balance ball instead of a bench while lifting free weights, or standing on an unstable surface, such as a balance board, further stimulates and challenges your balance.

Include balance training in your fitness plan along with the training of the cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and respiratory systems you get from running. It's one of the best things you can do to slow the aging process. For information on more balance exercises, go to http://gymball.com/balance_exercises.html.

(Biomechanics, 2001, Vol. 8, No. 11, pp. 79-86)


American Running Association, empowering adults to get America's youth moving. For more information or to join ARA, please visit www.americanrunning.org.

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