By JUDD MATSUNAGA, Esq.
One of my favorite Olympic events is women’s gymnastics. In particular, the balance beam.
Take Simone Biles in 2016 for example — after her mount, she did a double pirouette, two leaps, a front flip with a twist, a backward-handspring, double back-flip combination, a front flip, two leaps with splits, another back flip, a front flip, more split leaps, several turns, then two back handsprings leading to a twisting double-flip dismount.
Did I mention that the beam is only 4 inches wide and stands 4 feet above the ground? Of all the playing surfaces in sports, none is more unforgiving than the balance beam. No other event requires the same mental focus. It’s the most treacherous — and mesmerizing — event in sports.
“The beam is the event of perfection. No room for error. It’s also the most nerve-wracking event to watch,” said former gymnast and coach Stephen Cook.
Now, if I were to ask you to climb up and walk across the balance beam, you’d think I was nuts. You might say, “When I was young, no problem — I had balance.” But when you get into your 50s and 60s, you may notice yourself becoming less stable. Gradual changes linked to growing older — such as loss of muscle mass, slower reflexes, and worsening eyesight — can lead to a fall causing an injury.
According to a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School called “Better Balance,” every 11 seconds, an adult age 65 or older is treated in the emergency department for an injury from a fall. One out of five falls leads to a fracture (broken bone), a blow to the head, or another serious problem. Falls are the leading cause of accidental death in older adults. Every 15 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall-related injury.
The above referenced UCI article gives a list of the major reasons that seniors fall. Here are some of them:
(1) Medications – Many medications cause dizziness or drowsiness that can precede a fall.
(2) Eye problems – Eyesight less than 20/60, decreasing depth perception, and reduced sensitivity to contrast — all of which can be detected in a standard eye exam — contribute to falls.
(3) Excess weight – Excess weight can cause gait problems that may affect your center of balance. Being overweight or obese also puts painful strain on your knees and hips.
(4) Chronic diseases – Blood pressure fluctuations, heart problems, inner ear disorders, and nerve damage are among the ailments that contribute to falls.
(5) Alcohol use – Alcohol impairs judgment, slows reaction time, and cranks up clumsiness — a veritable recipe for falls.
(6) Unstable shoes – High heels, slip-on shoes, loose slippers, and smooth, slippery soles may promote falls.
(7) Stiff, sore joints – Stiff joints limit movement and make it harder to catch yourself if you do trip. If you have trouble turning your neck, for example, you tend to turn your upper body to look behind you, which can throw you off balance. Pain itself takes attention away from walking or moving safely.
(8) Weak ankles – Weak ankles or stiff, inflexible ankle joints make walking harder. Stumbles may occur more when the rear foot doesn’t clear the ground properly, making the toes more likely to catch against the ground as you move forward.
(9) Weak muscles – Loss of strength and power — particularly in the lower body — erodes balance, setting the stage for falls and making it hard to catch yourself if you trip.
Whatever the reason (or combination of reasons), it all boils down to this: You fell because you lost your BALANCE. Balance is a complex phenomenon, involving your eyes, ears, muscles, and brain. It’s something you may take for granted … until you suffer a serious fall.
When toddlers tumble, they may shed a few tears before surging ahead again unscathed. But when an adult falls, particularly an older adult, consequences are often far worse, potentially leading to a hip fracture, head injury, or even death.
Good balance, by contrast, helps prevent falls. It builds confidence and fosters independence. There’s a real “use it or lose it” component to balance. With practice, almost anyone — of any age — can achieve better balance. What’s more, the full blend of recommended activities can help you build better awareness of your body and surroundings, boost your confidence, and tune up your heart and lungs to keep you healthy and independent.
The first thing you should do as the loving spouse or adult child is to make the home safer to “age in place.” For example: (1) Install grab bars inside and outside your tub or shower and next to the toilet; (2) Use non-slip mats in the bathtub and on shower floors; (3) Make sure your home has lots of light by adding more or brighter light bulbs; and (4) Get rid of things you could trip over.
The next thing you should do is to get your parents to do strength and balance exercises.
Building lower-body strength helps improve balance. Walks can help you do so safely, and they count toward your aerobic activity goals. If health problems make walks especially difficult for you, discuss your options with a physical therapist. Swimming or using specific exercise machines may be a better choice.
Not an athlete? Check out your local Japanese American community or senior center. All of them off exercise and balance classes for seniors. Some of them offer yoga and tai chi.
The Harvard Medical article says that “simple actions like climbing in and out of the bathtub, going up and down stairs, picking up a child or grandchild, and even turning to look behind you require good balance, too.”
Here’s my suggestion — join a Nikkei senior bowling league!!! Believe it or not, bowling is exercise, builds lower-body strength, and helps improve your balance. The Southern California Nikkei Bowling Association (SCNBA) was organized “to help increase the general interest in the game of bowling within the heritage of the Japanese culture and community.” You can find leagues in Southern California on their website, www.scnba.com.
Now, I’m no expert at bowling. But I do know that the lane is 41.5 inches wide, and made up of wood planks (or synthetic wood planks). Each plank is 1.064″ wide, and each is called a “board.” There are 39 boards across the lane from edge to edge. These boards are numbered from 1 to 39 right-to-left for right-handed bowlers, and left-to-right for left-handed bowlers. The center board is the 20 board for both right- and left-handed bowlers.
Most all bowlers will take 3, 4 or 5 steps in their approach to the foul line, where they release the ball down the lane. Usually, I’ll try to walk down the 10 board, like I’m waking on a tightrope. Remember the balance beam opening? Well, I walk down a 4-inch-wide balance beam every time I bowl (only it’s not 4 feet above ground). Not only that, but I’m swinging a 14-pound bowling ball — that’s got to improve my balance.
I’m so convinced that bowling in a league is good for me, both mentally and physically, I joined two senior leagues – one is in Torrance, the other is in Montebello. Both leagues have several seniors in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and mid-90s. The Montebello league has a 100-year-old lady bowler, and her mind is as sharp as the 60-year-olds’. When I reach 100, I hope to still be bowling (golfing too).
Finally, if you frequently feel unsteady on your feet or suffer from dizziness or vertigo (the sensation of the room spinning), talk with your doctor. Discuss whether changing medications or lowering dosages might help. Bring medications and supplements (or a list detailing them) to doctor’s visits. Talk to your doctor about any health problems and medications that might increase your risk for falls.
Too often balance problems and risks of falling aren’t discussed until a condition becomes serious. By identifying and addressing issues early, your doctor can help you avoid future problems. The process of diagnosing may begin with a physical exam and medication review, plus further testing as needed.
Though some of them cannot be fixed, others have remedies you may be able to tackle with your doctor, such as keeping blood pressure from falling too low or making sure you have the right prescription in your glasses.
As every physician will tell you, exercise is essential for a healthy life. Generally, light to moderate exercise is safe for healthy adults. Most people, healthy or not, can safely take up walking. Then get started on the exercises.
If you fail to make an effort to improve your balance, you may find that poor balance becomes a more serious problem. For older adults in particular, balance is essential to maintaining good health, since physical activity becomes difficult without it. Poor balance not only restricts your movements, but it can also lead to falls and resulting injuries. And in the elderly, one fall can lead to fear of another fall.
The fear of falling “causes seniors to limit their activities, social interactions and exercise,” says UCI Health geriatrician Dr. Elham Arghami. She continues, “This inactivity leads to muscle weakness, especially in the spine and hip areas, and a loss of core strength that can actually increase the likelihood of taking a tumble. It’s a vicious cycle.” (Source: www.ucihealth.org/blog/2022/09/fear-of-falling)
Exercise is your friend. Although every person is unique and has a different level of fitness, older adults need daily exercise to maintain or improve balance, strength and flexibility.
“It really comes down to a ‘if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it’ mentality,” says Arghami.
Fewer injuries, restored confidence, and a renewed zest for life are well worth the effort.
Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/Medi-Cal planning, probate, personal injury and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.