Many of us take our ability to walk well and easily for granted; however, as we get older we can start to experience changes to our gait. Our gait, or walking pattern, is influenced by a complex interaction of factors: these include current medical conditions, medication use, balance disorders and deficits, as well as our levels of strength, flexibility, and general fitness. How do you know if you have experienced changes to your functional balance and your walking ability? Well here are a few indicators: Can you get out of a chair without help, and without using the arms of the chair? Can you sit tall in a chair without slumping? Is your stance (when standing) less than 4 inches, or 10 centimetres wide? Can you turn 360 degrees easily, in each direction, without holding on to anything? When walking, does each foot clear the floor completely? When striding does your stepping foot move all the way past the stance foot (the foot on which you are balancing)? If you answered no to one or more of those questions, then you may need to work on your postural control, functional balance, and walking pattern. Increasing your general level of fitness is always a good start. Water exercise and recumbent bike exercise are two safe ways to improve your conditioning when balance is a bit of an issue. Look for group aquatics classes at your local community centre or seniors centre. Your local arthritis society may also have some listings of water classes in your area. Besides being relatively safe and easy on the joints, water exercise has the added benefit of challenging your balance due to the push and pull of the current. This challenge is made harder in a class setting, which can be very beneficial for improving your gait.
As your muscles get stronger, you can add in more actual walking and strength training for your lower body and core. If you do not have access to a water class, or wish to begin improving your strength and functional balance simply, at home, you can try these two lower body exercises:
Sit to Stand: You will need a sturdy chair, anchored well and with no danger of tipping. Begin by scooting forward in the chair, bending your knees so they are over toes. Lean forward with a straight back (bend at the hip). Rise to standing. If you need to use the arm rests, go ahead, but try to keep the emphasis on contracting your leg muscles rather than using your arms. Repeat for 2-12 repetitions, depending upon your current ability.
Hip Shifts/Weight Shifting: Begin by standing, with your hands on a wall or other firm and supportive surface. With good posture, shift your weight from side to side. If this is too easy, you can add a slight lift of one leg and then the other, with the emphasis on contracting your hip muscles. Repeat for 4-12 repetitions per side, depending upon your current ability.