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October 18, 2010. I think you could improve your balance. Just stay with me for a minute, OK? This could be important, someday.

Professional athletes spend hundreds of hours each year working to improve their balance – because other professional athletes are trying to knock them over or they work on ice or they move so fast the slightest imbalance and down they go.

Old folks like me (should) fear falling because, get this: of the 300,000 men and women over 65 who fracture a hip this year, 20% will die within a year. And 50% won’t regain their mobility; they’ll move to nursing homes. Journal of the American Medical Association.

You, like everybody, could slip, trip or otherwise sprain an ankle or end up on your butt later today. And off your feet for six to eight weeks. Not to mention the pain. So take one more minute with me to consider …

Balance Training
Three minutes a day will do the trick; five or ten minutes is better. You’re too busy? C’mon, wake up and stand on your balance board for the first three minutes you’re checking your e-mail. Really, you can do that. Personally, I’m not big on that kind of multi-tasking. But it beats a sprained ankle.

You can buy a balance board for twenty dollars. That’s less than the co-pay in the emergency room. Or you can get a lot of the benefit without a board – just do quadriceps stretch, spinal balance and ankle lifts from my Better Cheaper Slower stretching program. They’ll strengthen many of the dozens of muscles you use reflexively to regain your balance at the moment you sense you’re about to fall.

But for maximum benefit in minimum time, get a balance board and use it. It’ll strengthen all the right muscles – and train them to react fast. It’s actually fun – kind of like being on a tiny surfboard. And after a couple of weeks of training, you’ll feel the difference every time you step onto an uneven surface, a slippery surface or anything unstable.

How it works
The board doesn’t balance you; you balance you. The board’s bottom isn’t flat; it’s curved. So when you stand on it, it’s almost surely going to tip to one side or the other. The object of the game is to balance yourself and the board by perfectly centering your weight on the absolute center of the board. Which really isn’t that hard; do it a few times and you’ll be an expert. In the first few seconds, you’ll feel dozens of small muscles in your calves, ankles and feet working to make the fine adjustments. And you’ll use all your core muscles, especially your abs, to maintain your center of balance. It’s a great way to exercise. The less you move, the better you’re doing.

Unless you’re a young and very accomplished gymnast, use a balance board that puts you no more than a very few inches above the floor. I’ve put a link in the left column to one that’s fixed at 2.2″. Less than twenty dollars. The other link gets you to the one I’ve started using. It’s a very compact 3-in-1 thing that’s an adjustable balance board; a height-adjustable aerobic step; and a resistance trainer with resistance bands that clip onto the step and the balance board. It’s $50.

Get on it
Start with the easy and familiar: stand on two legs. Practice now; next week we’re doing it on one leg. Press Play above and watch the video demonstration. I’m OK with it; you don’t have to be embarrassed for me. Anything I can do to help you stay on your feet.

If you really rather read, here’s what I have to say while I’m balancing for you.

Put one foot on the balance board, then, really carefully, the other. Take your time getting adjusted – the object of the game is to stand upright – good posture, back straight, your arms out to the sides. Legs straight but knees soft, not locked. Feet pretty close together, but you can spread them apart at first if that’s more comfortable. For starters, you might want to do this right next to a wall or a chair, something you can lean on to help you get balanced. Breathe slowly and deeply – don’t hold your breath. Stay balanced on the board for as long as you can: 10 or 15 seconds, thirty seconds, whatever. Eventually, you’ll do it for two or three minutes. Something that really helps: stare at something directly in front of you. That visual cue will really help you get balanced and stay balanced. Want to make a balance exercise really hard, maybe even impossible: close your eyes. Actually, don’t.

Every Thing Is Everything
Strong bones, another way to avoid hip fractures. Weight-bearing exercise like my Strength Training 101 contributes mightily to bone density and strength as well as to muscle mass and strength. If your bone density’s on the way down – and this begins after age 35 if you don’t counter it with exercise and diet – you’re on the way to osteopenia and its severe form, osteoporosis. If you get there, you’re at a significantly higher risk for hip, spine, wrist and rib fractures.

Like muscle, bone is living tissue that responds to exercise by becoming stronger… The best exercise for your bones is the weight-bearing kind, which forces you to work against gravity. Some examples of weight-bearing exercises include weight training, walking, hiking, jogging, climbing stairs, tennis, and dancing.” (National Institutes of Health, January 2009). And you know how I feel about dancing.

Calcium and Vitamin D. After you hit 30 or 35, your body begins to lose its ability to absorb calcium. If you don’t get enough from your diet, your body starts to borrow it from your big calcium deposits: your bones. You can get enough calcium from food – if you eat enough dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt), nuts and leafy green vegetables like kale, escarole and collards. So put some extra cheese on my pizza. Milk and extra nuts with my granola. And you just can’t get enough of my favorite Fall snack: amazingly delicious Kale Chips.

Now the story gets a little more complicated. The active form of Vitamin D is a hormone that regulates your body’s use of calcium, including its absorption. The bad news: unlike calcium, you can’t get enough Vitamin D from your diet. The good news: you can get enough – but not too much – from the right amount of sun exposure. But like most people, you probably don’t – because you want to avoid skin cancer.

Dr. Michael Holick was responsible for the first isolation and identification of the active form of Vitamin D. His book, The Vitamin D Solution, has a subtitle that should really get your attention: A 3-Step Strategy to Cure Our Most Common Health Problem. Why might this be ‘our most common health problem’? Because a large majority of us are Vitamin D-deficient or -insufficient. Read some more here; then, get his book. Find out how much sun is a great thing – and how much is too much.

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