Column: Fall Prevention and Improving Gait and Balance through Exercise

Fitness Column
By KENT PEGG

Fall Prevention and Improving Gait and Balance through Exercise

Proper balance and gait are essential components of physical function. If a person is going to be able to perform most activities of daily living, they need to have the capacity to safely stand and walk.

There are many causes of affected gait and balance including chronic disease, muscle weakness, neurological conditions, aging, cognitive impairments, and extremity disabilities.

Balance is a person’s ability to control upright posture under a variety of conditions. There are three sensory systems that provide the information necessary for good balance: the visual system, the vestibular system, and the somatosensory system.

The visual system provides information on changing environment and conditions. The vestibular system in the inner ear accounts for the position and movement of the head. And, the somatosensory system relays information from the skin, muscles, and joints regarding the position and motion of the body.

To have proper balance, a person needs good upright posture. The body’s center of gravity should be positioned vertically over the body’s supporting base.

As a person ages, good posture requires more attention and thought. To maintain good posture you should perform scapular retraction exercises like rows and scapular rotation exercises like rear shoulder raises.

Gait is the way a person walks. It includes three components: stride, equilibrium, and the ability to adapt to changes in the environment. Since walking is the most common activity in a person’s life, care should be taken to ensure that your gait is efficient and not contributing to physical problems.

Gait can be improved through conditioning and exercise. Strength in your legs and hips provides increased physical ability while ankle strength and power provides stability.

The biggest consequence of impaired gait and balance is the increased risk of falling. Falls can occur for many reasons including gait and balance disorders, weakness, postural imbalance, and environmental hazards.

Over one-third of Americans over the age of 65 will experience a fall each year. These falls will lead to over 280,000 hip fractures. To reduce the risk of falling you can slow your gait to allow more time to react to environmental changes or shorten your stride to minimize the change in your center of gravity as you walk.

One of the best ways to prevent falling and to improve both your gait and balance is to increase muscle function through strength training and exercise. Exercises should be performed that will increase the muscle strength and stability in your legs, hips, and ankles.

\To strengthen your legs perform stationary lunges (a great balance exercise), leg extensions, and leg curls. For hip strengthening, perform hip extension, hip flexion, adductor and abductor exercises. Use caution and consult with a fitness professional regarding abductor exercises, as they may not be right for every person.

Strengthening the lower leg and ankle is critical to balance, gait, and fall prevention. Minimize plantar flexion exercises like calf raises to prevent over-developing the calf muscles and creating a muscle imbalance. More important are dorsiflexion exercises where you’re pulling your foot toward your shin. These exercises strengthen the anterior tibialis and other muscles in the front of the leg.

Also, perform exercises like one leg stands to specifically improve your balance. Start by standing on one leg for ten to fifteen second and repeat for three to five sets on each leg. Gradually make this exercise more difficult by closing your eyes, or by moving your body around to change your center of gravity, or by standing on a wobble board.

Remember that gait and balance are critical to retaining mobility so exercise the correct muscle groups in the correct way and you’ll be able to maintain your active lifestyle.

Kent Pegg is a certified personal trainer and the owner of the Los Alamos Fitness Center.  If you have any questions about the information or exercises in this article you can call him at 662-5232.

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