September 29, 2005

Balancing Exercises May Steady Older Adults

NEW YORK -- Performing exercises that focus on balance may help older adults stand more firmly on their feet, according to a new study.

Researchers found that a series of at-home exercises improved balance among the 55- to 60-year-olds they studied. Specifically, the exercises increased the speed of their sway patterns, which may steady their stance.

Everybody, young or old, sways imperceptibly on their feet as part of maintaining balance and stability. Sway patterns do, however, change with age, said David Koceja, a professor of kinesiology at Indiana University Bloomington and one of the researchers on the new study.

While younger people generally sway forward and backward, he told Reuters Health, older adults tend to take on a less stable, side-to-side sway, so that their overall pattern looks like a circle.

In their study, Koceja and his colleagues found that the balance regimen they prescribed did not alter side-to-side sway, but it bumped up participants' sway speed by 16 percent, on average.

This suggests that the exercisers' balance "system" would be quicker to adapt to change, and potentially prevent falls -- a major cause of injury and disability as people age.

Indeed, balancing exercises are an important, if overlooked, part of staying fit for older people, Koceja said. Strengthening exercises may improve muscle tone, and cardiovascular exercise may do the heart good, but balancing tasks are needed to improve stability, he explained.

Unlike the case with other forms of exercise -- where, for example, results are apparent in a change in muscle mass -- the benefits of balance exercises may be tougher to see. But they are worth doing, according to Koceja.

For their study, the researchers instructed a group of fairly fit older adults to do three balance exercises 4 days per week, for 15 minutes each day. One exercise consisted of standing on one leg for 15 seconds, with the other leg bent so the thigh was parallel to the floor. Another involved balancing with one leg lifted to the side, while the third had exercisers lifting one leg straight back while reaching the opposite arm forward.

After 6 weeks, the researchers found, participants showed an improvement in their sway speed.

One of the benefits of the balancing exercises, Koceja said, is that they are simple and designed to do at home. "Everybody can do it," he said, "which is the point."

However, an older person who is already having obvious balance problems should see a doctor to find out the underlying cause, according to Koceja. And as with any exercise, people with existing medical conditions should check in with their doctors first.