BodyLove: Welcome to wherever you are

“BodyLove” is a new monthly article by the Fermi Occupational Medical Office to discuss ways to honor your body as the important vessel that it is.

“Welcome to wherever you are” refers to the fact that we are all at different places — physical health, work sites, etc. Wherever you are, it is important to be address your current health and ways to be the best you.

Today, we are addressing “balance.” Balance is an underappreciated skill and is a key part of what allows us to do everyday tasks, like walking, running, going up and down stairs, and getting up from a chair. Balance has more to do with the ability to quickly contract your muscles to stabilize or produce a desired movement, so you can stop under control, recover momentum and react.

As you age, you lose your ability to perform the quick muscle contractions at twice the rate that general strength declines. If you are not actively working on your balance, the decline can accelerate.

Believe it or not, as early as age 30, we begin to lose that muscle mass. Balancing as we walk, jump and even stand requires muscle mass. Muscle mass also helps keep our bones and joints aligned so we remain upright.

Along with muscle, balancing needs to have successful interaction of three primary sensory systems: visual (what we see); somatosensory (nerves that enable us to touch and feel, as well as have a sense of our body in space); and vestibular (tiny inner ear system that responds to gravity). Visual is the go-to for our normal balance responses, but all three systems are important to our balance system.

Now, throw in aging, and the balance equation becomes more complicated. Visual acuity, including depth perception and peripheral vision, begins to diminish with age, so you are not picking up information as quickly and your body reacts more slowly to things that could make you fall.

Did you know your balance can also be affected by injury, muscular fatigue, soreness, illness and lack of sleep?

What can you do to help your balance? The good news is no matter your age, you can maintain or enhance your balance with practice! Just like learning an instrument, with practice you create appropriate neuromuscular connections — links between your brain and your muscles. The key is to practice regularly — daily or every other day — to affect your balance.

Don’t think you have time? Start small like standing on one leg when you brush your teeth or picking up something with one leg elevated behind you. You can step up and down a stair; you can do lunges (which cause splint stances); you can exercise with unbalanced loads (holding a weight on one side only) and do core exercises.

Below are six exercises you can do to improve your balance. Always check with your health care provider before beginning a home exercise program. For safety during these exercises, position yourself near a countertop or sturdy surface that you can use for support.

1. Standing march
Standing near a sturdy support, begin marching in place slowly for 20-30 seconds. Start with two or three sets, and go from there as you get more comfortable.

2. Standing three-way kicks
Standing on one leg (with a soft, unlocked knee), slowly raise your other leg out in front of you. Keep your extended leg as straight as possible, and return it to the center. Then gently lift the same leg out to the side and back down, and then extend your leg behind your body and back down. You can start slow — one or two sets — and build from there as you get more comfortable.

3. Sidestepping
Facing a countertop or wall (with your hands on the counter or wall for support as needed), step sideways in one direction with your toes pointed straight ahead, taking three steps one direction and then returning with three steps in the other direction.

4. One-leg stand
Stand on one leg as long as you are able, up to 30 seconds. Remember to remain near a sturdy support surface that you can hold on if needed. Alternate legs and try to do this three-to-five times on each leg. As this becomes easier, challenge yourself by doing other tasks while standing on one leg, such as brushing your teeth, talking on the phone, or while doing the dishes. These types of balancing exercises can be easily integrated into your daily routine.

5. Sit to stand and stand to sit
Rise out of a chair without using your arms to push up. If this is difficult at first, place a firm pad underneath you on the chair seat to raise you. As you return to a seated position, slowly lower yourself all the way back down and ease into your seat (rather than dropping into the chair). Start with five up and down; increase as you are able. You can also do this while watching TV!

6. Heel-to-toe standing or walking
Place one foot directly in front of the other, so the heel of the front foot touches the toe of the back foot. Hold this position for as long as you are able, or up to 30 seconds. As this becomes easier, try taking a few steps in this heel-to-toe format, as if you are walking on a tight rope. The first few times, have something to hold on to for safety, just in case.

Michelle DiGiovanni-Harold, PhD, APN-BC, is a nurse practitioner with the Fermi Occupational Medical Office.