Renew’s Checkup Challenge: Simple ways to check your balance

On Day 2 of the Checkup Challenge, discover 4 ways to test your balance — and learn a few easy moves that can help prevent falls

Linda Rodgers
Person doing yoga pose

The Renew Checkup Challenge is here to help you take charge of your health in a new way. Over 7 days, you’ll prepare for your next annual wellness visit, learn how to build a stronger relationship with your provider and become a better advocate for your health. Because no one ever said you had to take the changes that can come with getting older sitting down.

These stats are still shocking even if you’ve heard them before: About 36 million adults 65 and older fall each year, according to a 2020 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And more than 8 million experience an injury.

Unless you’ve had a fall recently, you probably don’t think much about your balance. But not being able to remain steady on your feet, including when you walk, is a big reason that so many older adults fall. That’s according to a 2019 study by researchers at Columbia University in New York City.

It’s normal for people to lose their sense of balance as they age, says Sherri Betz, PT, DPT. She’s a board-certified geriatric specialist and a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association.

“Balance is a very intricate system,” says Betz. To maintain it, we depend on our visual system, our vestibular [or inner-ear] system, our nervous system and our muscular skeletal system. And age can take a toll on each one.

For instance, unless you’re doing focused training for maintaining muscle mass (or doing a lot of physical labor), you’ll lose about 1% of your leg strength every year after age 50, explains Betz. You lose about half a percent of bone density every year too.

At the same time, your vision may be getting weaker: “If you have bifocals, especially when you look down as you climb stairs, it’s really tough to stay balanced,” notes Betz. Problems with the inner ear can cause dizziness or make you feel lightheaded. That can affect your ability to stay upright. So too can certain medications, including common ones such as antihistamines, blood pressure pills and antidepressants.

For today’s challenge, we invite you to put your balance to the test — safely — right at home. It’s not always easy to tell how stable you really are, and these simple coordination exercises will give you a good gauge.

Follow the instructions here or in your Checkup Challenge Activity Guide (download a copy here) and be sure to write down how you did.

When you see your primary care provider (PCP), make sure you share your results. If you find that your balance could use some improvement, you and your PCP can work together on a plan.

Try this 4-part balance test

These checks take next to no time and are a good measure of where you may be challenged. To start, stand barefoot next to your kitchen counter or in the hallway. “Choose someplace that has a steady object that you can touch or lean against if you need to,” suggests Betz, who is the director of TheraPilates, a physical therapy clinic in Monroe, Louisiana. Then try to do each of the following:

 

1. Cross your hands over your chest and stand with your feet together for 10 seconds. Feel steady? Try closing your eyes. If you feel dizzy or lightheaded, hold off on doing this move and mention it to your provider at your next checkup, Betz recommends.

2. “Take a half step forward with your right foot so the heel is in line with the arch of your left foot and the 2 feet are touching each other,” Betz notes. Do this on both sides for 10 seconds. Are you a little wobbly, or okay?

3. Place 1 foot in front of the other as if you were standing on a balance beam. Hold for 10 seconds. “This one’s usually pretty hard for people. You can do it while you’re moving, but to do it standing still is not so easy,” says Betz.

4. Cross your arms over your chest. Then stand on 1 leg and lift your knee. Try to stay balanced for 10 seconds.

If you have trouble with any of those — your arms flail, you put down the lifted foot — that’s a sign that you need to work on your balance, Betz notes.

Build strength with Renew
Renew by UnitedHealthcare® has a library of workout videos with something for every fitness level and taste — yoga, tai chi, strength training, cardio and more. You’ll get a healthy dose of motivation from fitness instructors who lead the follow-along workouts, along with exercise tips and pointers. Ready to get started? UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage members can sign in to MyUHCMedicare.com and go to Health & Wellness. Not a member? Learn more here.

Next, check your risk of having a fall

Want another way to check how steady you are? The functional-reach test measures how far you can reach without taking a step and helps evaluate your fall risk, says Rachel Baer, a certified yoga instructor in East Lyme, Connecticut. She has taught chair yoga and fall-prevention classes to older adults.

 

How to do it: Stand next to a wall without touching it and raise the arm nearest the wall. Mark the spot where your fingertips are (or have someone do it for you). Then reach forward as far as you can without taking a step or feeling unsafe. Measure the distance. If your reach is more than 6 inches, that’s a good sign. Less than 6 inches? You’re at a higher risk for falling, explains Baer, who is the owner of Yoga-Keeps-Me-Fit.

Give your house the once-over
Our House Safety Checklist can help UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage members uncover hidden fall hazards in their home. Sign in or register to MyUHCMedicare.com. Go to Health & Wellness, then search for “House Safety Checklist.” Not a member? Learn more here.

Stay in good standing

If your balance needs boosting, discuss your results with your PCP at your next checkup and ask for exercise options. Another thing to remember: “Don’t despair — there is so much you can do,” notes Baer. Besides talking to your provider, taking yoga (regular and chair) can help your steadiness. “And most senior centers also offer a fitness class where there’s some weight training, and they also work on balance and coordination and make it fun,” adds Baer.

 

Build leg strength with this simple move

As you wait for your PCP appointment, challenge yourself with one of Betz’s favorite exercises for balance loss, leg strengthening and fall prevention — the 1-legged heel raise. “I find so many older adults can’t do a heel raise on 1 leg, and they’re shocked because they don’t even know that’s something that they need to be able to do,” Betz says.

 

How to do it: Stand on 1 leg with the other leg lifted so that your knee is as high as your hip (this works your core muscles too). Cross your arms over your chest. Then raise the heel of your standing leg. See if you can work up to doing 20 every day, recommends Betz. If this is too hard, start by placing 1 foot on a stool to decrease some of the weight on your standing leg.

Taking simple steps to protect your balance will help you stay safe and active now — and in future years.
 

Catch up with the rest of the Checkup Challenge:
Day 1: Assess your physical activity level
Day 3: Think about your bowel and bladder function
Day 4: Check in with your feelings
Day 5: Take charge of your care
Day 6: Check your medication knowledge
Day 7: Make your health emergency plan