Featured Photo: Balance traverse on the East ridge of Wolfs Tooth, Wind river Range, Wyoming. Photo Credit: Paul Gardner

I balance on the balls of my feet pressing the sticky rubber soles of my climbing shoes to the narrow ledge. The heels of my shoes stick out over five hundred feet of big air. I shuffle my feet across the traverse and hands pressed against the rock. Climbing second, I am roped, but there is no protection. A fall would mean a thirty foot pendulum into a rocky face at a right angle to my tiny ledge. It is August 2009. The position is spectacular. My climbing partner, Paul Gardner, and I are high on the East Ridge of Wolfs Head. In the heart of the Cirque of the Towers, deep in the Wind River Wilderness of Wyoming. Civilization and aid are distant. With the practice of forty years of climbing, I finish the traverse joining Paul at the belay. On to the summit.  

The East Ridge of Wolfs Tooth, Wind river Range, Wyoming

This edition of What I Learned is about balance. One of the leading health concerns for people over the age of 60 is falling, which is often related to balance problems. The percent of people falling increases from 40% to 65% to 82% with each decade after age 65 years. The consequence of falling can be serious; many elderly adults who fracture a hip die within one year. Even if a bone is not fractured during a fall, falls cause pain and injury while reducing future mobility and quality of life. As a personal trainer, one my important roles is to help my clients maintain and improve their balance and proprioception: your body’s ability to sense movement, action and location. It is all part of adding life to your years. Read https://crooked-thumb.com/2021/05/04/dont-let-the-old-man-in-seven-strategies-for-adding-life-to-your-years/

The Science behind Good Balance

Good balance requires reliable sensory input from the individual’s vision, vestibular system (the balance system of the inner ear), and proprioceptors (sensors of position and movement in the feet and legs). We are prone to a variety of diseases which affect vision and peripheral neuropathy, which impairs proprioception in the feet and legs; and degeneration of the vestibular system.

Balance is also dependent on muscle strength, joint mobility, and healthy feet. A sedentary lifestyle, painful arthritis or diseases of bones and muscles can compromise strength, mobility, and of foot support. Balance control also depends on healthy brain function. The brain needs to process and interpret sensory information and select appropriate balance strategies. Adapting and learning new strategies takes practice.

As we age, brain processing can slow down, which results in slower balance responses. People with cognitive problems have balance problems, showing the importance of higher level brain processing in balance control. Improving balance focuses on what we can control: improving our strength, mobility and proprioception.  

The Aging Vestibular System

The vestibular system is a complex structure of fluid-filled tubes and chambers that constitutes part of the inner ear. Specialized nerve endings inside these structures detect the position and movement of the head.

The signals sent from the nerves of the vestibular system are critically important to the brain’s ability to control balance in standing and walking and also to control certain types of reflexive eye movements that make it possible to see clearly while walking or running. Anatomical studies have shown that the number of nerve cells in the vestibular system decreases from about age 55. Blood flow to the inner ear also decreases with age. Vestibular loss becomes more severe as age progresses. The gradual, age-related loss of vestibular nerve endings can result in benign to severe balance problems.

When I turned sixty I was served a harsh reality notice. I almost died when I lost my balance soling a technical climbing route on the Grand Teton, Wyoming. Read https://crooked-thumb.com/2017/11/01/genesis-on-the-grand-a-near-ending-is-a-new-beginning/

Of all vestibular disorders, benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) is one of the most common in older adults. BPPV causes vertigo, a strong sense of a spinning world, due to debris that has collected within a part of the inner ear. This debris, called otoconia, is made up of small crystals of calcium carbonate (sometimes referred to colloquially as “ear rocks”). With head movement, the displaced otoconia shift in the fluid, sending false signals to the brain and causing dizziness or vertigo. Usually the vertigo associated with BPPV lasts only a few seconds per episode and is not associated with severe balance problems. I have a client with BPPV. Over time, we have made progress improving his balance.

Balance Improving Strategies

Most of my clients are over fifty years in age. Their ability to maintain balance in challenging proprioceptive exercises varies greatly. Regardless of age, the more active you are the better your balance. Exercises that activate you proprioception sensors will help you improve your balance. If you have never done these exercises, get help. They are more risky than sitting in a leg press machine in a gym.

I incorporate balance exercises in all my client workout programs. Beginning with simple one leg standing movements we progress to harder weight bearing exercises like one leg curl and press. Next we add movement such as a step up to one leg curl and press. A good balance improving exercise is squats on a bozu ball; add arm exercises like shoulder raises or try using one leg for more challenge.

I am a fan of one leg exercises: one leg or pistol squats, one RDLs or hinges, and lunges. Working these exercises not only improves balance, but addresses lateral symmetry issues from imbalances and old injuries. Add weight to increase difficulty.

We do a variety of strength and core exercises using a stability ball (AKA exercise ball or balance ball). Examples are supine chest press, sitting military press, supine glute raise, and ab crunches.

I am not a yoga instructor, but I have been practicing yoga for decades. I add yoga exercises to the workout programs of clients. Standing yoga poses are helpful for balance: Half Moon, Warrior I and III, Tree, and Extended Triangle.

After building a solid base of balance, we progress to plyometric exercises incorporating balance, movement and strength: ice skaters, box jumps, med ball throws, burpees, jumping jacks and agility ladder exercises. Adding these exercises in a high intensity interval training program has multiple benefits regardless of age. Read https://crooked-thumb.com/2021/04/07/interval-training-live-longer-live-healthier/

The key is consistency. Do something every day. Challenge yourself with increasing difficulty. If I can help you email me at mailto:steve.crookedthumb@gmail.com

The Payoff

Standing on the bank of Clear Creek in the Wind River Wilderness, I watch with sober contemplation the dancing rapid. Swollen by a week of rain and a foot of snow in the high country, the creek is three feet deep and fills bank to bank. There is a bridge spanning the thirty foot wide creek: three logs from near bank to sloping rock midstream; and two logs from rock to far bank. The largest log has a diameter of four inches. The surging water kisses the bottom of the logs.

Photo: Log bridge on Clear Creek, Wind River Range, Wyoming

It is August, 2021. I am sixty seven years old. It is the first day of a fifty mile solo off-trail loop hike. My pack is full weighing just under thirty pounds. Taking a deep breath, I step onto the log bridge— the logs sway, the water rushes. I lock my eye on the rock midstream keeping the logs underfoot in my peripheral vision. My trekking poles are useless. Keeping one foot on the right log, left on the middle I move slowly across to the rock. The logs move with every step. Don’t rush. Falling is not an option. Arriving at the rock, I bath in adrenalin. Brimming with confidence, I make short work of the next log bridge. I am on solid ground. Relief. The balance work pays off. There is a swagger to my step as I cross the meadow. Adventure awaits. Read https://crooked-thumb.com/2021/12/06/the-winds-of-change-fifty-years-hiking-and-climbing-in-the-wind-river-range-of-wyoming/

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