VNA program helps seniors stay balanced

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When you're young and agile, walking can seem the most basic of movements.

Add medications, stiff joints, weak muscles, ailing eyesight and changes in the body's sense of space and everyday tasks such as going up and down stairs and getting in and out of the shower can be challenging and dangerous.

"I go out to the barn to take care of the horses it's the uneven ground (that's challenging)," explained 91-year-old Jean Davidson, a participant in N'Balance, a class sponsored by the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association.

The class, held at Selby Apartments, aims to help seniors regain stability and confidence in their movements.

Instructor Jeanne Upbin used a variety of props including cones, foam pads and platforms to represent common obstacles such as rocks, ice and curbs.

Participants crossed their hands and maneuvered around and over the props while Upbin encouraged them to place one foot firmly on the ground before raising the other foot, and to return their gaze upward after looking at the obstacle.

"Raising your head lifts your whole energy up," she told the group, which also practiced sidestepping as if moving through narrow spaces such as restaurants, movie theatres and crowded sidewalks.

Loss of proprioception, or the body's unconscious ability to adapt to shifting environments, is a main factor affecting balance as we age, explained Belinda Brownell, a physical therapist at Forever Fit of Steamboat Springs.

"We lose that knowledge of where our joints are in space, and so we rely on our visual systems," she said, adding that seniors tend to look down a lot, developing a forward bent posture resulting in falls.

Brownell helps seniors retrain their proprioception systems by assisting them while they navigate unstable surfaces and obstacles with their eyes closed.

Strength training is another important component of improving stability and balance because we tend to become more sedentary as we age, which leads to stiff spines and weak muscles that cannot support joints, she said.

A class at Forever Fit offers a combination of balance and strength exercises and Pilates to help seniors improve their range of motion, flexibility and stability.

"They can advance so quickly when they work on it," Brownell said. "It's huge the progress they make."

Activity, in general, is the key to preventing or minimizing balance problems and falls. Yoga, Pilates, walking, cross-country skiing and swimming/water exercises are all good low impact options for maintaining strength and flexibility, she said.

Studies also have shown that Tai Chi, a traditional Chinese exercise involving continuous slow movements, is particularly effective in helping seniors maintain good balance.

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