How good is your balance?

with advice from Kristina Holland, PTA

How good is your balance?

As we noted last December, our danger of falls increases exponentially as we age; the CDC estimates that one out of every three adults over 65 will fall each year. Kristina Holland, a physical therapist assistant at Clinton Physical Therapy Center (a Physiquality network member in Clinton, Tennessee), notes that knowing this doesn’t necessarily help us: As someone ages, she is more likely to fear falling, which often leads to a vicious circle of reducing activity, increasing weakness, and a greater risk of falling.

One way to reduce your risk of falling is to take control of your health and measure how good your balance is — the better your balance, the less likely you are to fall. There are a couple of tests that you can do at home to measure your balance:

Balancing on one leg.Balancing on one leg. Kristina says, “Being able to balance on one leg is significant for fall prevention, since we have to stand on one foot with each step as we swing the opposite leg through.” Declining balance can lead people to shorten their steps, which can lead to stiffness and weakness at the hips and ankles, all points that can increase one’s fall risk.

To test this at home, she recommends having a friend or family member nearby as you try to balance on one leg.

  • Begin by holding onto some sturdy furniture, i.e., a couch or countertop, rather than a chair that might fall over.
  • Hold on and raise one foot by either bending at the knee or flexing your hip in front, but do not rest the leg against the standing knee for support.
  • Maintain level hips and when you feel stable, let go of the support.

Have your family member time you after you pick up your hands, or you can count one–one thousand, two–one thousand, etc. When your hands touch your support, or you start to put your foot down, the count ends. As we age, the average time lowers considerably:

  20-49 years 30 seconds  
  50-59 years 21 seconds  
  60-69 years 10 seconds  
  70-79 years 4 seconds  
  80 and up most unable to complete  

For all age groups, if you can balance on one leg for 30 seconds or greater, your fall risk is small. From 15 to 30 seconds, there is a moderate risk level, and less than 15 seconds puts you at high risk for a fall.

Additionally, your family member should watch your hip on the side that you’re holding up. Kristina notes that if the hip visibly drops, it may indicate significant weakness in the gluteus medius muscle, an important hip stabilizer. She says, “This weakness needs to be addressed,” either with your doctor or a physical therapist.

Sit to stand. Sit to stand. You can also test your balance by repeatedly sitting and standing in a chair without pushing up with your arms. Again, have a friend or family member nearby, to help you in case you lose your balance. Have them count how many times you can rise from sitting within 10 seconds. Being able to do more than 3 repetitions is low risk.

If your results from either test mark you as other than low risk, or if you are concerned with your balance (or lack thereof) and are scared of falling, talk with your doctor. Kristina advises, “Bring a list of any prescription and over-the-counter medications you take — certain medications can increase your risk of falls.” Be sure to also discuss any recent falls, and write down the circumstances from when they occurred.

Your doctor may prescribe physical therapy to help address some of the issues, but your continued commitment to regular exercise after therapy is of paramount importance in the long run. For more tips, read through our post on fall prevention.

Kristina Holland, PTA, has been a physical therapist assistant for 5 years at Clinton Physical Therapy Center, a Physiquality network member in Clinton, Tennessee.

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For further information, look through our selection of articles on the danger of falls, in addition to the below links:

Falls among older adults. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, February 29, 2012.

Balance and fall prevention for older adults. Physiquality, December 2, 2011.

Falls and older adults. National Institute for Health.

Concerned about your balance? Wayne Senior Center.

The material and information contained on this Web site is for information only and is not intended to serve as medical advice or consultation.

Consult your personal physician before beginning any exercise program or self-treatment.