Senior Riders: Balance & Fear of Falling

To take up the bicycle at an older age may seem imprudent when so many other forms of exercise are available.But the fear of falling may be keeping potential bicyclists from enjoying a healthy and fun activity that can lead to an array of new experiences.

For seniors who were never avid sports participants (the non-golfers, non-swimmers and non-tennis players among us), staying fit often means walking, dancing, visiting the gym, joining a volleyball team, or just chasing grandchildren. The pleasures of these activities cannot be denied. To take up the bicycle at an older age may seem imprudent when so many other forms of exercise are available. It may seem risky or foolish, conjuring up memories of childhood falls or images of adult racing disasters. But the fear of falling may be keeping potential bicyclists from enjoying a healthy and fun activity that can lead to an array of new experiences. It is an ideal activity, as seen by the many older bicyclists worldwide. Why don’t more SoCal seniors consider being a grom in the saddle? Most likely, fear of falling.

During BICYCLIST’s recent visit to the Noto Peninsula in Japan (Issue #138), I was the senior riding with two Millennials. Two days before our flight home I took a fall, injuring both my arm and my pride. What went wrong? Certainly I had been unlucky, landing on an old wooden irrigation canal alongside the road. It was also a very windy day and very rutted road, I emphasize to listeners of my tale. But, by admitting that my own weaknesses may have contributed to the fall, I’m better able to prevent such an accident in the future.

First, I considered balance. Seniors whose fear of falling keeps them from starting or resuming bicycling may believe that falls are a normal part of aging. Not true! Although our sense of balance may decline, falls are not a consequence of aging. Changes to the three main sensory contributors do occur with age, but here’s what makes a fall likely:

• A pre-existing injury or condition that makes you unsteady
• Taking multiple kinds of medications
• Any medication that is known to cause dizziness
• Low blood pressure or taking blood pressure medication
• A fever, which can make you feel dizzy
• Vision changes or wearing glasses/contacts with an incorrect prescription
• Dehydration

Preserving a fundamental sense of balance in all activities is as important as strength training, aerobics, and stretching. We can’t avoid the steady decline in these three sensory contributors: 1) vision, 2) the sensitivity of proprioceptors on the bottoms of the feet that communicate position information to the brain, or 3) the responsiveness of tiny hairs in the semicircular canals of the inner ear that relay gravity and motion information to the brain. But experts have proved that much of the sense of balance can be preserved and even restored by performing exercises that require no special equipment or training.

Assessing Basic Equilibrium

To establish a benchmark for your current ability to balance, stand near a counter or sturdy furniture. Wear flat, closed shoes. Fold your arms across your chest. Raise one leg, bending the knee about 45 degrees. Start a stopwatch and close your eyes.

Stop the watch immediately if you uncross your arms, tilt sideways more than 45 degrees, move the leg you are standing on, or touch the raised leg to the floor. Repeat with the other leg.

Norms for various ages:

20 to 49 years old: 24 to 28 seconds.
50 to 59 years: 21 seconds
60 to 69 years: 10 seconds
70 to 79: 4 seconds
80 and older: most cannot do it.

Whatever your age, strive for the norm of those younger than 50.

Exercises to Increase Stability

Balance is a motor skill and to enhance it you need training in the same way you train muscles for strength and the heart – with aerobic capacity.

For an advanced exercise, lift the arms, open in the chest, relax the shoulders, and gently bend the elbows.

Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and arms straight out in front. Lift one foot behind, bending the knee at 45 degrees. Hold that position for five seconds or longer, if possible. Repeat five times. Then switch legs. As you improve, try one-leg stands with your eyes closed.

Incorporate one-legged stands into your daily routines: while on the phone, brushing your teeth, waiting in line or for a bus, while cooking or washing dishes.

Sit-to-stand exercises once or twice a day also increase ankle, leg and hip strength and help the body adjust to changes in position without becoming dizzy after being sedentary for a long time.

Practice walking heel-to-toe one foot in front of the other. Focus on a spot ahead of you to keep you steady. Repeat for 20 steps.

Find more balance exercises at the National Institute for Aging website.

Stable and Strong

Although I have started doing balance exercises, there was one more thing I needed to do. It was the hardest exercise of all: To admit that I had continued trying to keep up with my youthful colleagues when I knew I was becoming unstable. Admitting this has helped my bicycling confidence. In situations where I feel unstable, I now just stop. With humor and acceptance, I acknowledge my limitations. That, at this age, is doing my best.

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