A good friend who volunteers at the local animal shelter stumbled over a hose during cleanup of the dog kennels and took a bad fall. She was carrying a big bucket filled with cleaning solution at the time, and while her view of the floor wasn’t obscured she just didn’t notice the hose lying across her path. My friend, the bucket and all its liquid contents went flying. Fortunately, she came away from the fall with only minor bruises and soggy clothes.

Sometimes when we catch a toe we stumble momentarily but then regain balance without tumbling over. For my friend, the weight of the bucket had her slightly off balance even before her foot caught on the hose. At the same time, her single-minded focus to quickly reach her destination and set the bucket down not only made her less aware of what was underfoot, it also caused her to lean forward so that her upper body was slightly ahead of her feet.  Add to that the tensing of shoulders and torso to hold the bucket’s weight and you have someone who was already off balance and too tense to nimbly recover her footing.

What Can We Do?

Balance Awareness
Minding balance for fall prevention begins with recognizing actions and circumstance that potentially undermine stability, for example, picking up heavy objects and/or encountering obstacles in our path. Recognizing a challenge makes it possible to take proactive steps (no pun intended!) to prevent a fall. To begin with, you can minimize being pulled off balance even before reaching for the bucket
 by feeling your upper body aligned over your feet. Next, heed the advice “bend your knees,” which isn’t just good for your back when picking up something heavy – it’s good for your balance. Instead of leaning sideways to pick up the bucket, bend your knees to reach the handle and remain aware of feeling your upper body weight over your legs and feet as you lift the bucket from the ground. Maintain that awareness as you step forward bucket in hand. When posture is stable to begin with and balance is already in mind you have the best chance of keeping a stumble from becoming a fall.

Spatial Awareness
Of course, noticing the hose and simply stepping over it negates the need for balance recovery. That may sound simple, but maintaining awareness of our environment takes some intentional work. In the martial art Ki-Aikido we practice awareness of our surroundings in the midst of moving straight ahead. Try this simple exercise: Look straight ahead at an object across the room; while keeping your central focus on that object notice what you can see in your peripheral vision – on the ground, to either side, and above you. Practice tuning in to your peripheral vision, particularly of the ground, while walking around the house or strolling through the neighborhood. The more you practice, the more likely it will become an automatic part of how you move through the world.

Martial arts students as well as athletes and dancers train to heighten awareness of both balance and space in the course of movement. As we deal with internal challenges to balance that may occur with aging and/or disease, we can draw on these same awareness lessons to help take control for better balance.