It’s always been a family joke that I inherited my dad’s klutziness, and he and I have endured our fair share of Three Stooges moments. But these days, no one’s laughing: At 87, my father has begun falling, one of the most serious medical problems facing older people.
In fact, grace is a crucial survival skill, but it’s also perishable. Ever so gradually after we hit 30, muscles we use to stand tall weaken. The length of our stride shortens, the pace of our steps slows, and vision—critical to coordination—becomes fuzzier. Even menopause can make our gait a tad more wobbly. “Aging, however, isn’t the only reason people lose their sense of stability,” says A. Lynn Millar, PhD, a professor of physical therapy at Winston-Salem State University. “Balance is really ‘use it or lose it.’ You can maintain it if you stay active.”
How well we keep our balance now, in midlife, can protect us from what lies ahead: One in three adults over age 65 takes a serious tumble each year. Avoiding falls means a longer life: About 20% of women who fracture a hip become permanently disabled, and another 20% die within a year. In fact, health problems linked to hip fractures result in more women’s deaths each year than breast cancer does.
But an enhanced sense of stability doesn’t just help protect you from future falls. There are immediate health benefits—better mobility, fewer injuries, greater capacity to push yourself harder during workouts—that increase overall fitness, says Fabio Comana, an instructor with the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
The problem is that people are often unaware that their coordination is slipping. While there are hallmarks of clumsiness—such as poor handwriting and constantly banged-up shins and knees—even naturally agile people need to work to boost balance with age. “Balance is a separate system, just like strength or flexibility. You can improve it if you continue to challenge it,” says Edward Laskowski, MD
Here are 8 strategies to help strengthen the core and lower-body muscles that keep you steady on your feet.
Stand on one leg.
Try to do this while you are washing the dishes, suggests Laskowski. When you can hold the pose for 30 seconds on each side, stand on a less stable surface, such as a couch cushion; to increase the challenge even more, do it with your eyes closed.