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Yoga May Boost Balance and Help Prevent Falls

July 18, 2018

By Carol Krucoff, C-IAYT, E-RYT

“Any falls in the last three months?”

Many physicians routinely ask this question because falling can have serious consequences, especially for older adults.  Falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries in the U.S. among people age 65 and older.   As the population ages, death rates from falls among seniors have increased by 30 percent from 2007 to 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which estimates that–if rates continue to rise–there will be 7 fall deaths every hour by 2030.

Many factors contribute to an increase in falls with age—including visual impairment, medication side effects, and reduced strength and balance.    Yet falling is not an inevitable part of aging.  Research suggests that fall risk can be reduced through lifestyle strategies, such as keeping rooms free from clutter, and from exercises designed to improve four areas of fitness:  endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility.

Yoga may be particularly helpful since it involves practices that can boost all four of these fitness components.   A recent study of older adults who attended yoga classes in Western Wisconsin found that the number of falls dropped 48 percent in the six months after yoga classes began, compared to the previous six months.  Yoga may reduce fall risk by helping participants strengthen their core, enhance stability, and increase awareness of how they move, suggested the research team, which included yoga instructor Paul Mross, a 2015 graduate of our Integrative Yoga for Seniors Professional Training held annually at Duke Integrative Medicine.

Balance postures may be particularly valuable in helping older adults avoid falls and also boost their confidence and maintain independence.   Examples of balance poses include:

  • Slowly moving in challenging ways—such as walking an imaginary “tightrope”
  • Standing from a seated position without using the hands
  • Balancing on one leg

In fact, research suggests that the ability to balance on one leg may reflect brain health, which is why one-legged standing time is sometimes used as a measure of health risk.

Adults in their 50s are generally able to balance on one leg with eyes open for about 37 seconds—an amount that drops by about 10 seconds per decade.   The mean one-legged balance time for adults in their 60s is 27 seconds, in their 70s is 15 seconds, and 80 in their 80s and 90s is 6 seconds.   [https://www.sralab.org/rehabilitation-measures/single-leg-stance-or-one-legged-stance-test]

Balance can improve with practice.  Over nearly 20 years of teaching yoga to older adults, I’ve seen remarkable improvements in people’s ability to balance on one leg through the practice of one of yoga’s classic postures, Tree Pose.   Try it at home with these instructions, adapted from our book, “Relax into Yoga for Seniors:  A Six-Week Program for Strength, Balance, Flexibility, and Pain Relief

tree pose

  1. Stand tall next to a wall or a chair that you can touch lightly for support.
  2. Position your feet hip-width apart with your weight evenly distributed between both legs.
  3. Send “roots” down through your right leg and lift your left heel, keeping the ball of your left foot on the ground.
  4. Turn your left knee out slightly to the left as you slide the sole of your left foot against your right ankle.
  5. Steady your gaze at the horizon and breathe easily. Anchoring your gaze at a specific focal point, known as a drishti, can help stabilize your balance.
  6. For more challenge, pick your left foot up off the ground and place it anywhere along the inside of your right leg, except on your knee. Feel free to lightly touch the chair or wall for support.  Explore bringing your palms together in front of your chest.  Feel free to put your left foot back on the ground if necessary.
  7. For even more challenge, extend your arms up overhead with your shoulders relaxed.
  8. Play with balancing here for several breaths then return to the starting position and take a moment to notice the effects of the practice. Repeat on the other side.
  9. When you are done, stand tall for several breaths and notice the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that arise.

Balance poses teach some of yoga’s most important lessons: getting grounded, finding your center, staying focused, maintaining concentration, and steadying the mind.  The process of learning to balance, with its inevitable falling and trying again, cultivates patience, persistence, humility, and good humor.  These qualities help us do more than stay balanced in a posture.  They help us stay balanced in life.

~~~~

Yoga instructors interested in learning how to safely and effectively teach older adults may apply for our upcoming Integrative Yoga for Seniors Teacher Training, which combines the best of current, evidence-based medicine with the ancient wisdom, experience and tradition of yogic teachings.  For more information, visit https://www.dukeintegrativemedicine.org/programs-training/professionals/integrative-yoga-for-seniors-professional-training/

 

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