We have a great number of people who train with us over the age of 65. There is the 85 year old handball player and former national champion. Then there’s the 83 year old runner who was the oldest competitor in the past two Boston Marathons and who shaved off ten minutes at the Big Sur half marathon this past spring (an amazing accomplishment when you consider she had to run almost a minute faster for each of the 13.1 miles). We have another group of handball players with double knee replacements ranging in age from 65 to 70, as well as the local surf legends, in the same age range, who strive to keep riding the waves. However, most of our “well seasoned” clientele are more like the 85 year old grandmother figure who enjoys walking with her son along the shore line or at the local university’s arboretum. Her main goal is to avoid falling down and hurting herself and not be restricted by her age.
Today’s conventional wisdom on fall prevention ranges greatly, from the adequate to the absurd. You can observe several videos of senior exercise classes on Youtube which ask participants to sit and balance on an inflatable ball while lifting one foot off the floor. It seems more like dog training than fall prevention. Perhaps they get a treat every time they do it right? I’m not sure sitting and lifting a leg will really help grandpa go down the walk for his morning paper. You will also observe senior participants standing beside a chair and lift one leg like a pelican and hold as still as possible. Now they’re getting a little warmer. As we walk we do need to balance from leg to leg so that seems like a decent exercise. However if all they do is try and be still on one leg then the point is being missed. Seniors (and others who experience balance challenges) need more than trying to do a good impression of a pelican. To create a more balanced fall prevention program we need to understand what happens when someone falls.
In truth, we all lose balance from time to time but you don’t really see such prevention programs for your 20 something year olds. Do you? Everyone throughout their life will misstep, trip, and stumble, creating a good opportunity to fall. The difference between those who fall and those who do not is the speed and control that each individual can muster to slow their body mass and it’s momentum against the force of gravity. When we lose our balance it is because the center of our body’s mass goes outside our base of support. The base of support is the circle which exists if you were to trace the outline your feet and connect across from toe to toe and heel to heel. When you stand with a wide stance your base of support is greater, which is why you might feel more balanced. When balancing on one foot, you’re base of support is the outline of that one foot, creating much more of a challenge. As the center of mass travels outside our base of support we have but two options: 1) create a new base of support which will reposition our mass inside it’s borders or (2) fall.
The trouble many seniors have is that they do not respond quick enough to create a new base of support. They also are not typically flexible enough to take large enough steps if such steps are required. Nor do several seniors have the muscular strength or neurological experience required to get the body to respond in the necessary manner. Therefore, they need to gain the experience of multi-directional movements of varying speeds. They also need to experience decelerating their body’s mass as it shifts and changes direction.
Enter the “Lunge Matrix.” Created by Gary Gray of the Gray Institute, the lunge matrix is a series of movements which train the body to travel forward, backward, laterally, and rotationally. Other elements can be combined with traveling in these directions such as reaching, pulling, pushing, etc. to add greater levels of complexity and demand. Every time we guide clients through these movements amazing things happen. They begin with small and very guarded steps. Some clients will need to perform the matrix in a door way or by a wall or chair. As their neuromuscular system becomes familiar with the matrix their ability to maintain balance, coordinate movement, and manage their body mass and momentum improves. Their steps become bigger and less wobbly. Over time we will also progressively challenge our clients by changing the tempo of each action. We might also ask them to hold resistance in one or both hands. We might also have them try and catch a ball so they keep their attention elsewhere while their body manages the movement from a less conscious perspective. The progression is always based on their safety and comfort level. The last thing they need to do is tense up when moving into unfamiliar territory.
Here are examples of the lunge matrix. It can help improve grandma’s confidence, balance, coordination and sense of freedom. It’s also the closest thing to dancing you’re going to find outside of the ballroom. Be sure to play some Tommy Dorsey record to get in the mood ;)