Published in “The Retiree”, Autumn 2011 edition
As a culture, we are obsessed with our body’s appearance, and it’s not possible to open a magazine without seeing articles on obesity, how to lose weight, and a bewildering variety of dietary regimens that are presented and seem to contradict one another (high fibre, high protein, high carb, and high fat diets – and all backed up by science, too, apparently).
Yet an even more life-threatening condition threatens the middle-aged and elderly daily: the insidious loss of strength and balance that can make many ordinary activities potentially life-threatening events. And we know that osteopenia, or osteoporosis (significant loss of bone mass) are on the increase too, which means that any fall can have very serious consequences.
In 1995 in Australia, 13.4 per cent of all deaths were from falls, and the majority of these were sustained by those aged over 45 (see reference below). There is no doubt that a reduced capacity to balance, a reduced capacity to react effectively to a loss of balance, and reduced strength overall contributes to this trend. And a much larger fraction of the ageing population suffer neck and back pain, and many complain of an overall loss of suppleness in their middle and later years. Is this the future we can look forward to?
No, definitely not. The capacity to balance and to recover one’s balance if one loses it, are skills that can be enhanced with simple exercises that require no equipment at all. ‘Balance’ is a capacity that emerges from a neural system that is awake, and aware of what’s happening inside and outside the body without concentration being directed specifically to this task. As well, one’s neural and muscular system needs to be able to react quickly as conditions change, and this capacity needs to be ‘tuned’ in an on-going way.
There’s more to the story, though. We lose around 0.5 – 1 per cent of our muscle mass annually after the age of 25 – and as this is compounded over time, the result can be the loss of half one’s muscle by age 50 – a frightening thought. Similar processes are responsible for bone mass loss, too. Reduction in whole-body strength coupled with reduced range of movement in all the joints of the body are the major causes of hip, lower back, and neck pain, as well.
Many of the most dangerous falls happen in the shower or bath, so one of the most effective ways to protect yourself is to install safety handles at the recommended height. These inexpensive installations will allow simple and effective exercises to be done too, and this is where we will begin. Note that any stable support (the edge of a solid table, any rail that you can hang on to safely, or a column – even the edge of a door frame) will do for this purpose.
It is conventional to begin any article on exercise with a caution like “check with your physician or health professional before beginning any exercise routine” – and you may care to do that, but if you have no obvious health problems, and you are presently walking around unaided, these simple exercises may be embarked upon immediately. They are not taxing aerobically, and affect coordination and neural patterning more than other aspects of the mind/body complex.
Download the full article to view the three exercises
Video versions of the three exercises
Ex. 1 – The shower squat
Ex. 2 – Drawing with the feet!
Ex. 3 – The chair squat
What reps/sets combination do you recommend working up to on the foot drawing exercise?
I did not mention sets and reps deliberately. Think of this as a skill acquisition exercise: repeat a time or two if you think you are improving, and try to refine the movement rather than do more or do for longer. This way your fine motor control will be the aspect in your body–mind that responds the strongest. Always end a session on a good repetition. If you did want to do more, as an experiment, you’ll likely find that your accuracy and feeling of control will suddenly decrease—this tells you you have done one more than enough!