How Balance Affects You

How Balance Affects You.

-Cade Searle, DPT, Vestibular Certified

Today I’d like to take some time to write about balance. Being a physical therapist, this is one aspect of what I do every day to help people move and function better. Balance tends to decline as we get older, but there is a difference between “normal” and “abnormal” ageing when it comes to our ability to balance and stay upright.

Maintaining good balance is critical to decrease the risk of falling as we age. Falling is the leading cause of injury in adults over 65 years old and more than 95% of hip fractures are caused by falling. Hip fractures are serious since 25% of seniors who break their hip will die within 6 months due to complications from the broken hip. There are many reasons why balance declines over time, some reasons include cognitive decline, medication side effects, and illness. In physical therapy, we focus on how to improve or help compensate the normal decline of our balance systems to improve safety and well-being.

There are 3 basic body systems that help keep us balanced and upright. They are the vestibular (inner ear), visual (eyes), and somatosensory (body awareness) systems. These three systems work together and talk to our brain to help us control our center of gravity. Think of these balance systems as a 3-legged stool our balance sits on. If one of these systems or “legs of the stool” isn’t working, it is a lot easier to tip over and fall.


So how do you know if you might need help with your balance? Let’s try a quick balance test to see if you are within the “normal” range of balance. This test is not all-inclusive of how your balance is performing or if you are at an increased risk for falling, but it can give you a rough idea of how you are doing and if you should consider physical therapy to improve your balance and decrease your fall risk. First, stand somewhere you can grab on to a stable surface for safety. Then try standing on one foot without your legs touching one another and time yourself with a watch, clock, or kitchen timer. Next try it with your eyes closed if you feel safe enough to do so. It’s usually best to try this with someone next to you to be safe. Now compare your times to your appropriate age group.


Age (years)  Single leg balance: eyes open (seconds) Single leg balance: eyes closed (seconds)

18 – 39

45 15

40 – 49

42 13

50 – 59

41 9

60 – 69

32 4.5

70 – 79

21 3

80 – 99

9.5 2


Keep in mind that if you feel like your balance is off, feel unsteady, or if you’re concerned about falling that it is always a good idea to seek medical attention from your physician or see a physical therapist. A trained physical therapist can perform special tests to see if physical therapy is right for you and help determine what system may be causing your balance issues. A therapist can then create specific exercises unique to your condition to improve your balance and stability. Common activities include strength and endurance training for leg and core muscles, stability activities, and inner-ear training to improve your body’s balance systems. Many of these exercises can be modified to do at home so you can improve your balance no matter where you are.