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Do Balance and Flexibility Training to Stay Younger
By Sheri Colberg-Ochs, Ph.D.
Maintaining your balance is important during almost all physical activities, and your ability to balance may diminish as you age. Research has shown, however, that loss of strength in your hips, knees, and ankles has a lot to do with your diminishing ability to balance, which means that it can be enhanced with specific exercises to strengthen those muscles. While core exercises can help with balance, other muscles are critical as well and should be worked with balance exercises. Specifically, the most important muscles for good balance are the ones that lift your legs to the side, the ones that lift your toes, and the ones that keep you moving forward. The primary "abductor" that lifts your legs to the side is a gluteal (buttocks) muscle, the gluteus medius; the main toe lifter is the tibialis anterior, on the front of your shins; and the primary muscle for maintaining forward movement is the gastrocnemius in your calves.
It's easy to lose your balance when you're standing or walking. Your head, trunk, and arms constitute two-thirds of your whole body weight, but with every step you take, that weight is carried and supported mainly by the hip muscles of your stationary leg. If these muscles are weak, they will allow you to tilt to the side, and if you slip when you're already tilted, you'll likely fall down. You can prevent this from happening, though. Side leg raises are the best exercise to strengthen the abductor muscles of the upper thigh. Toe raises (listed as an additional balance exercise, below) can be done anytime, either sitting or standing, with one leg held out in front of you, to improve your toe-lifting ability. In addition, the calf raise will strengthen the toe flexor muscles that keep you moving forward. Try to balance on your toes during that exercise for optimal balance improvement.
Additional Balance Exercises
These exercises will help you improve your balance, so do them as often as you like. If you need to, hold on to or brace your hand against a table, chair, wall, or other sturdy object when you begin. As you progress, first use only one fingertip, and then try to do them without any support - as long as you have something sturdy nearby to hold on to should you become unsteady.
Toe raises: Standing with your hand on the back of a chair or against a wall, straighten one leg so that your foot is off the floor in front of you and flex your ankle to point your toes up at the ceiling. Hold this position for as long as you can; relax; and repeat several times before switching to the other leg.
Stork stands: Stand on one foot for a minute, and then switch to the other one. You can practice doing this exercise anytime you are standing.
Line walks: Take a step forward by positioning your heel in a straight line just in front of the toes of the opposite foot. As you take each additional step, the heel of your front foot and the toes of your back one should be barely or almost touching.
Sit/stand exercise: Practice standing up and sitting down without using your hands or arms for support or balance.
Flexibility Moves to Set You Free
Flexibility exercises in their simplest form stretch and elongate muscles. Good flexibility is as important a part of fitness as stamina. Muscles must be strong, but they also have to be long (as opposed to contracted) to work optimally. In fact, stretching can do a lot more for your figure than aerobic exercise, because flexibility work results in a supple, toned, and streamlined body. Moreover, the benefits of greater flexibility may go beyond the physical to include stress reduction and promotion of a greater sense of well-being. Exercise disciplines that incorporate stretching with breath control and meditation include yoga, tai chi, and Pilates.
In creating your flexibility workouts and completing them a minimum of two to three times a week, it's again important to include stretches for all of the major muscle groups in your body. You will regain some of your flexibility by stretching regularly, although your gains may be ultimately limited by your genetic makeup, diabetes control, arthritis, and other variables. Nonetheless, my own research found that all people with type 2 diabetes experience flexibility gains by doing just eight weeks of stretching of their major upper- and lower-body muscles thrice weekly in conjunction with a moderate resistance training program.
Flexibility Training "Do's" and "Don'ts"
Use a full range of motion around joints when stretching.
Complete at least one stretch per major muscle group, optimally holding each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds.
Stretch all parts of your body two to three days per week.
Complete equal stretching exercises on both sides of your body or a joint.
Breathe deeply during all stretches to relax your muscles more.
Bounce during stretches, as doing so can cause muscle tears and joint injuries.
Forget to stretch opposing muscle groups equally (e.g., quads and hamstrings).
Stretch to the point of causing sharp pain or intense discomfort.
Continue with a stretch if you feel a sharp or immediate pain in any joint or muscle.
Hold your breath or strain while stretching.
To get the maximum benefit, perform each stretch slowly. Doing the exercises correctly, with good form, is much more important than doing them quickly. To have any lasting effect on the muscle being stretched, you need to hold the stretch for at least 10 seconds to start. The more regularly you stretch, the better you become at judging how far to take your body. Aim to increase the duration of your stretches, so that you are eventually able to hold them for up to 30 seconds, the point at which muscles optimally start to lengthen. Also, be sure to stretch both sides of your body equally, as well as opposing muscles on both sides of a joint (such as biceps and triceps on the upper arm).