As you grow older, have you noticed that there are some activities you can no longer perform? It may be because you’ve gotten shorter. As we age, we shrink.
Starting around age 40, you typically lose about 0.4 inches every decade. Most of the height loss comes from gravity that continually compresses the gel-like discs or cushions between the vertebrae in the spine. The discs tend to dry out and become thinner.
Additional loss of height occurs from osteoporosis (bone loss in the spine and other bones). The weaker bones sustain small compression fractures and can cause the collapse, resulting in a curvature of the spine and further loss of height. The spine can also curve excessively from front to back due to a loss of tone in the abdominal muscles. Finally, it’s not uncommon for your foot arches to flatten, making you even shorter.
The Importance Of Proprioception
Since this shrinking occurs gradually over decades, not only do we visualize ourselves as being our original height, our brains do so as well. The subconscious awareness of your body’s orientation and movement is called proprioception.
Based on signals from the inner ear and nerves in the muscles and joints, the brain determines the location of your hands and feet, even in complete darkness. Much like being able to place your hands in the proper location to catch a ball, accurate proprioception is learned through experience. And when something like your height changes, your proprioception is compromised.
As most people age, they don’t always stay active enough to retrain their neurological pathways. And their proprioception ability diminishes. This is one of the reasons that falls are so common in the elderly. As your spine shrinks or curves, your reach changes. You walk differently. Your center of gravity shifts. The range of motion in your shoulders, lower back, and neck changes, and your agility and sense of balance decrease. This is why it’s important to perform activities that retrain nerve pathways so your brain can keep you upright and balanced in your activities.
Recalibrating Your Proprioception
Recalibrating your proprioception, and developing the neurological pathways that make it automatic, takes some effort and repetition — but it’s well worth it. Not only does it improve your mobility and lengthen your life, it can give you an excuse to play again and actually have fun.
You can find dozens of advanced balance exercises by searching online, but these are a few of my favorites to get you started. Begin slowly and only progress to a level that makes you comfortable. If you have questions or concerns, get advice and guidance from your doctor.
Make sure you are either barefoot or wearing flat-bottom shoes. In addition, use an armless chair or the kitchen counter to hold on to and stabilize yourself, if necessary. The only other item you need is a roll of blue painter’s tape.
While holding on to the chair or counter, try balancing on one leg for as long as you can, and then switch legs. Time yourself. Try to work up to one minute. It’s not a race. It might take days or even weeks. Once you reach one minute or your maximum, try stabilizing yourself by using just one hand to hold the chair or counter, then just one finger, and then let go completely.