If you have been diagnosed with osteoporosis, or have already experienced a fracture, you would be understandably nervous of falling. As a result you might slow down and certainly watch your step, especially on stairs and uneven ground. Even if you are soon to approach your senior years, you may be aware that missing a step may spell serious damage to an aging body.

But there are ways to counter your fears, and certainly improve your chances even if you should fall. Strengthening bones, muscles, ligaments and joints is vital to keeping your skeletal structure protected. And everything ultimately, becomes a matter of balance.

Balancing your options

It may be interesting to know that your eyes, ears, muscles and joints all play an important role in maintaining your balance and preventing broken bones.

Eyes: Changes in vision can happen as you age, and you must take cognisance of weakening eyesight and your ability to move around with ease. Conditions such as cataracts or glaucoma can develop, and your eyes may take longer to adjust to changes in the light and glare. Changes in vision can affect your ability to judge distance and obstacles that might be in your way, such as steps or rucks in carpets.

Ears: Ears lose clarity of sound, and this can affect our balance. Changes in hearing happen as you age. Our middle ears contain semi-circular canals lined with hair-like structures, fluid and crystals. This system can give us information on our head and body movements to help us maintain our balance. Any disorder in the middle-ear, such as vertigo, can cause us to lose balance.

Testing Your Balance: Test how your eyes and ears affect balance by standing next to a countertop or table. Stand still and bring your feet close together or stand on one foot. Now close your eyes, and see if it’s harder to maintain your balance. You’ll notice that it’s more difficult with your eyes closed.

Improving your balance

Co-ordination of movement is vital to maintaining your balance. Learning exercises such as Tai Chi and practising these on a daily basis, will help you to gently focus your mind and your muscles to achieve controlled and steady movement.

  • Weight-bearing aerobic exercises are really enjoyable. As well as improving your balance and strength, exercises include: walking, dancing, low-impact aerobics, stair climbing and gardening. These types of exercise work directly on the bones in your legs, hips and lower spine to slow mineral loss. They also work effectively on strength, flexibility and balance.
  • Flexibility exercises move your joints through their full range of motion and keep your muscles working well. Stretches are best performed after your muscles are warmed up.
  • Weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercises improve muscle strength and positively affect how well you move. Strong muscles and flexible joints play a role in your balance. Your ankles for instance, must remain flexible when you are walking or even standing still. Use free weights, resistance bands, or your own body weight to strengthen all major muscle groups, especially spinal muscles which are very important for posture.

 The value of exercising

Stay active the safe way – remember that your muscles protect your bones. Osteoporosis is a bone-weakening disorder, and can often result in osteoporosis of the hip and spine — which can severely impair mobility and independence.

Only do the exercises you feel comfortable with, and then build as you feel yourself gaining strength. Before you start, consult your doctor to make sure you are able to handle the activities. It would be wise to have a bone density test and fitness assessment beforehand to ascertain your strength status and the exercises most appropriate for you.

It’s never too late to start exercising and the benefits are fundamental to preventing poor movements and damaging falls. Exercises can: increase your muscle strength; improve your balance; decrease your risk of bone fracture; maintain or improve your posture; relieve or decrease pain.

Exercises to avoid

Activities such as jumping, running or jogging can lead to fractures in weakened bones. Avoid jerky, rapid movements in general. Choose exercises with slow, controlled movements. However, if you are generally fit and strong despite having osteoporosis, you may be able to engage in higher-impact exercise than someone who is frail.

Also avoid: bending and twisting such as in golf and tennis; jumping; sit-ups and toe-touches; running (power walking is safer). Also avoid high-risk sports such as skiing, ice-skating, roller-blading, or any contact sport. Always check first with a physical therapist who can help recommend or modify moves that are safe and appropriate for you.

NOFSA (National Osteoporosis Foundation South Africa)

NOFSA is the only non-profit, voluntary health organisation dedicated to promoting lifelong bone health. We focus on reducing the widespread prevalence of osteoporosis while working to find a cure for the disease, and by supporting research and developing programmes of education and advocacy.

Find out more about our work at: www.osteoporosis.org.za