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Ester Marsh column: Worried about your balance?

Even though we see balance issues more with our older adults, I have seen plenty of children and young adults with problems as well. Exercise can help improve your balance. Remember the phrase “When you don’t use, it you will lose it?” It counts for balance too, no matter how old you are.

If you see a sudden change in your balance, you want to make sure there aren’t any medical issues. Check with your doctor — there is a possibility you could have a balance disorder like vertigo (you might have the feeling that things around you are spinning) or labyrinthitis (an infection or inflammation of the inner ear causing dizziness and loss of balance). And with outdoor pools open and beach trips scheduled, swimmers ear can also affect balance.

Meniere’s disease is a balance disorder. Symptoms can be vertigo, hearing loss that comes and goes, ringing of the ears, a feeling of fullness in the ear, even nausea. After you have made sure you don’t have any disorders and you still have problems with your balance, it could be muscular. Aging corresponds with the loss of muscle mass and a decrease in muscle strength. The loss of muscle strength (especially in the legs and the core) makes maintaining balance difficult. Another issue could be weakening of the bones as a result of osteoporosis, along with decreased mobility in the knees and ankles, that can increase the risk of falling of an elderly person. Studies have shown great success with yoga, tai chi and strength training.

I have had numerous older adults who were falling frequently, and started them on a strength training program and challenged their balance by doing balance exercises, and it almost completely eliminated the falls they were experiencing before.

Another very important aspect is posture. When you have a rounded back and lean forward, just one little trip can have you face down on the floor. So stand nice and tall, shoulders back, down and relaxed and tighten your belly to a point you can still breathe. When your start a strength training program, it will also help to strengthen the bones and it has a huge impact on a person’s mental and emotional health. You won’t believe how quick you will feel better and are getting stronger.

When you start a strength program, don’t just focus on the legs and the core, work the whole body. Believe me, your whole body needs to work out and reap the benefits.

Besides strength training, you can start a yoga class or a class geared towards active older adults. Both will help your balance, and personally I have seen great improvement with the people who have attended our classes. Strength training, yoga, tai chi, good posture or just “plain” balance exercises will be your greatest success to regaining your balance.

Ester Marsh is health and fitness director of the JF Hurley Family YMCA.

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