Tai chi develops proprioceptive ability.
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As you age, cardiovascular exercise, strength training and stretching can help you stay active and maintain your independence. A robust heart and lungs, strong leg, arm and core muscles and good joint range of motion are key to keeping you healthy and mobile. Other essential pieces of the puzzle include balance, agility, coordination and control, all of which might improve with proprioceptive exercises.
Lower Fall Risk
Proprioceptive exercises can contribute to better posture, balance, gait and overall functionality, which might help lower fall risk among seniors. For people older than 65, falls are the main cause of death from injury, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, and falling results in millions of emergency-room visits every year. In 2011, for example, emergency departments treated 2.4 million nonfatal fall injuries among seniors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of those injuries - such as hip fractures - make it difficult or impossible to function independently and increase risk of early death. Falls among older adults are also extremely costly. Senior falls cost the health care system $30 billion in direct medical costs in 2010, according to the CDC.
Prime Your Receptors
Proprioception is your ability to sense where your body and limbs are positioned in space. It's what allows you to navigate in a dark room, walk up stairs without looking at your feet and brush your teeth without peering in a mirror. Your muscles, joints and skin are equipped with tiny sensory receptors that provide vital information to your brain, so you can maintain control, react quickly to sudden changes in your environment and move about safely. Proprioceptive ability tends to weaken as people age, because message transmissions to and from the central nervous system become more sluggish. In turn, poor proprioception can negatively affect balance, agility and coordination, all of which increase your risk of falling.
Teach an Old Dog New Tricks
You can train your proprioceptors in many ways. One of the most basic exercises involves balancing on one leg. Simply shift your weight onto one foot while raising the other foot slightly off the floor. Hold the position for up to a minute before switching legs and repeating. When the one-legged stance becomes too easy, increase difficulty by closing your eyes, moving your arms, swinging your nonstanding leg or tilting your head from side to side. You can also add to the challenge by performing a cognitive task - such as counting backward - while balancing. Other proprioceptive exercises are more dynamic, such as walking toe to heel in a straight line, toe-walking, stair stepping and walking on uneven surfaces. Some activities - such as yoga, tai chi and dance - have a strong proprioceptive component. The social aspect of such group activities can be tremendously motivating for seniors.
Weigh the Risks
Maintaining or improving proprioception is important as you age, but don't take unnecessary risks when you exercise. Because seniors tend to have less muscular strength than younger adults, they're more prone to injuries during proprioception training. If you have balance and stability issues, visit your doctor and ask about the advisability of particular exercises. Once you have his OK to do proprioceptive exercises at home, take precautions to stay injury-free. Wear comfortable clothing that doesn't restrict your movement and shoes with good support. Have a responsible adult in the room in case you feel dizzy or weak, or position yourself near a sturdy chair or wall so you can catch yourself if lose your balance. Breathe evenly during exercises, because holding your breath could affect your blood pressure.