Ask the Doctors

Dear Readers: In our previous column, we talked a bit about balance and asked you to stand on one foot. How did it go?

When friends and family (and, full disclosure, we) tried the one-foot balance test, there was more than a bit of leaning, arm flapping and burning muscles. So let's get right to a few techniques that, when incorporated into your daily life, can help you remain safely on your feet. With each of these activities, please be sure that you either have a spotter, or are practicing within grabbing distance of a stable object.

That one-minute balance test? Do it daily. Be sure to stand on each leg in turn so you condition both sides of the body. If it's easy with shoes on, try it barefoot. You'll be surprised by how much more you'll have to engage the muscles in your feet. If that becomes easy, and for some of you it will, try adding a bit of instability. A cushion under your feet is low-tech and affordable. Younger people may want to try wobble boards or balance boards, wiggly exercise platforms that not only help with balance, but also improve core strength.

An easier variation is weight shifts. Stand naturally with feet hip-width apart. Shift to one foot and stand for 15 seconds or more. Shift back to center and move to the other foot and hold. For an added level of difficulty, move one foot forward 6 inches or so each time. Wish it were harder? Practice looking left and right during each balance.

Walk heel-to-toe. That is, place your heel directly in front of your toe, like on a tight rope. Again, easier said than done. You may only make it a few steps the first few tries. Try again, and aim for a longer walk each time. Not only are you strengthening your muscles, but this is also a good exercise in mental awareness and concentration. Want a challenge? Try it backward.

If you're physically able and are not at risk for a fall, try rising from chairs and couches without using your hands. You may have to wiggle to the edge of the seat to get proper leverage. In order to rise, you'll have to engage your core muscles and use most of the muscles in your legs. Coordinating the entire move takes concentration, all good for ongoing stability.

The slow march is a great and gentle conditioner. In slow motion, raise one knee as far as is comfortable, hold for a count of three, and slowly return your foot to the floor. Switch sides. For added difficulty, you can slowly move forward.

This is a small sampling of what's available. Senior centers, the YMCA, and local parks and recreation programs can be great resources. We're big fans of tai chi and yoga, which emphasize balance. Also, Medicare covers a certain number of physical therapy sessions per year. A therapist who specializes in balance can create a program tailored to your specific needs.

Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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