So you think three or four days a week of cardiovascular work, a couple sessions of strength training and maybe even a couple of stretch sessions are enough to keep an aging body healthy? Sorry, it isn’t.
You probably move through life securely without even thinking. Starting with your usual morning routine and probably doing things you have done thousands of times before. But studies show that balance declines with age, especially if the complex system that governs it isn’t challenged regularly. For most of us, it isn’t. When is the last time you had to stand on one foot for any length of time, or negotiate a narrow pathway?
Your ability to stay upright and move through space is determined by a complex combination of muscle strength, visual inputs, the inner ear and the work of your proprioceptive system — specialised receptors in the nerves of your joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons that orient you in relation to other objects.
It’s all sorted out in the sensory cortex of your brain, which takes in the information from those sources and orchestrates your response. It’s why, for example, you can walk up a flight of stairs without looking down at them, how you know where your hand is without seeing it, how you adjust when you find yourself navigating rough terrain.
But aging dulls those senses. The functioning of those receptors declines, and the processing of the information sent over neural pathways slows.
“We’ve done a series of studies that show that proprioception gets worse with aging, it gets worse with arthritis, and the composition of your ligaments and tendons changes” in ways that can impair balance, says Robert Barrack, a professor of orthopedic surgery at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
What can you do? Challenge your proprioceptive systems just like you do with your aerobic and muscular system, and designate part of your workout specifically to improve this. Start by including static, single-leg balances into your workout and then progress to dynamic lateral lunging and explosive jumping exercises.
Ask your coach to help you incorporate more of these movements into your sessions and to check that you are performing them correctly.