View Full Version : Gettin' old(er)

02-09-2006, 04:41 PM
Is a problem we all face sooner or later. Okanogan gave me the idea to put together a thread on some exercises to help with balance, which is one physical attribute that steadily deteriorates with age as he noted in his excellent post on trekking poles. I posted this on the Hunting forum because I think good balance is essential for good hunting—you can’t still hunt or slip quietly through the timber on a mountainside unless you’ve got good balance. Come to think of it, hauling a pack around the mountains is a lot easier with good balance, too.

I’ve learned a little about exercises for balance due to some pretty intensive rehabilitation on my leg resulting from a skiing injury complicated by a partially botched knee surgery that damaged nerves in my lower leg (if anyone in Denver is considering knee surgery and wants to know who NOT to use, drop me a PM). So I’ve worked with and continue to work with a few different physical therapists and trainers on lower leg exercises and balance and learned a few things, listed below. Anyone else who has useful information, please chime in.

As far as balance goes, as you get older, a few physiological changes occur—you lose lean muscle mass and your nervous system becomes less efficient, and these are the processes we want to slow down. For good balance, you need to maintain muscle tone and an efficient nervous system. When you balance on one foot, your brain detects imbalance, sends a signal via your nervous system to a leg muscle to correct the imbalance, and fires the muscle. To stay balanced, your brain needs to send many signals in rapid-fire succession to different muscles. This is why your leg wobbles when you balance on one foot—your brain is firing different muscles in rapid succession. So, the more you do exercises that make you balance, the more efficient your nervous system and muscles get, and the better your balance.

Muscle tone, strength, and fitness also come into play. Imagine yourself sneaking through the woods still-hunting. You step over a log and just as you transfer your weight to your front foot, you see a huge buck looking your way so you freeze. If your legs are in shape, you might be able to hold your position, balanced on one foot, until the buck looks away but if your legs aren’t in shape you’re going to stumble or take a false step and spook the deer. Stamina also affects your balance in that as your muscles get fatigued, your balance deteriorates. So the higher your level of fitness, the better your balance, especially at the end of the day when you’re tired.

Here are a few exercises or variations that will help your balance:

First, if you use cardio machines like treadmills or stairclimbers don’t hold onto the handrails! When I’m at the gym 90% of the people I see using these machines are either holding onto or hunched over the handrails taking all the load off their legs, but this is a big mistake—these exercises are meant to strengthen legs as well as the cardio system, and holding onto handrails cancels the need for you to balance using your leg muscles. If you can’t balance yourself without using the handrails initially, try it for short intervals of time, and work up to the point where you don’t need the handrails. Then, try doing the exercises with your eyes closed, that will really help with balance. Again, when you start out you may only be able to close your eyes for short periods but even this will help. And if you use a machine that allows you to go backward, do that too. On a treadmill, all you have to do is turn around. When you go backward, especially on an incline, you use different leg muscles and also simulate the “putting on the brakes” effort similar to hiking downhill with a heavy pack.

There are a number of exercises you can do to strengthen leg muscles and improve balance, and a lot of these you can do at home. One good exercise for the lower leg uses a “wobble board” which is easy to make—it’s just a circular piece of ¾ inch plywood, about 12-14 inches or larger in diameter (the larger the easier the exercise), with a round wooden knob 11/2 to 2 inches in diameter attached to the bottom (drill a hole through the top and countersink it so you can put a wood screw through the top, you don’t want the screw head in the knob or you’ll scratch the floor). Or you can order one from Power Systems (www.power-systems.com). You stand on one foot on top of the board, with the knob underneath, holding onto something so you don’t fall over, and roll your ankle around and around so that the edge of the circular board contacts the floor in a circular motion. This fires different muscles used for balance in rapid succession as you complete each revolution. Do this in both directions and work up to three sets of 20 revolutions in each direction with each foot. Lower leg muscles have more “slow twitch” muscle fibers than “fast twitch” muscle fibers like the upper leg, so whether you’re doing resistance training or using the wobble board these slow twitch fibers are best trained by doing “sets” of 15-20 repetitions rather than using more resistance and 6-10 repetitions, like you would for fast twitch muscles. You can also just try balancing on one foot on the wobble board or various types of other balance boards, you’ll be surprised at how quickly this fatigues your leg muscles.

Other exercises use “balance disks” which are small air-filled round rubber bladders, about 3 inches thick and 12 inches in diameter that you stand on. If you use these you’ll need one for each foot (also available from Power Systems, and no, I don’t have a financial stake in Power Systems). The disks create an unstable surface for your feet and legs and force your leg muscles to balance during exercise. A good exercise is deep knee bends done while standing on the disks--do them slowly and smoothly, and pause at the bottom of each repetition. This will be difficult the first few times you try it, so extend your arms out to your sides to help with balance. After you get the hang of it, stop using your arms for balance—lock your fingers behind your head as with sit-ups, and this will make it more difficult and put more of the burden on your leg muscles, which is what you want. You can also do any number of exercises while standing on the disks and this will improve your balance, including upper body exercises like bicep curls. Another good exercise is just standing on one leg on a disk—stand there until your leg muscles scream, which won’t be long.

Other good exercises use medicine balls. One is to stand on one foot and have a partner toss you a medicine ball, catch it, and toss it back. A basketball works fine too. Do this until your leg muscles get fatigued, then switch legs and continue, doing 3-4 sets. If it gets too easy, have your partner throw the ball so that you have to reach to catch it, throwing you slightly off-balance. Another good exercise is to stand on one foot, holding a medicine ball in both hands (or a light dumbbell in each hand), and keeping the knee of the leg you’re standing on slightly bent, bend over at the waist and touch the medicine ball to the top of your foot, while extending your other leg straight behind you as a counter-weight. Then straighten up, slowly and smoothly. Do as many repetitions as you can (hint-it won’t be as many as you think), then switch legs. Do three sets. If this gets too easy, increase the weight of your medicine ball and/or as you straighten up with each repetition, raise the medicine ball up over your head with your arms extended in one smooth motion.

Another good exercise for balance and leg strength is lunges. Start out with no weight, and gradually add weight by holding a dumbbell in each hand. The key is proper form—take a giant step forward so that your upper leg is horizontal, your lower leg vertical, and your knee at a 90 degree angle. Your rear knee should also be at a 90 degree angle, except your upper leg is vertical and the lower leg horizontal. Hold this position for a second or two, then step forward with the other leg. Do this until you leg muscles fatigue, take a break for a minute or two, and do it again until you’ve done 3 or 4 sets.

Hopefully this information is useful; if anyone else has good exercises for balance, please add them on.

Ed T
02-09-2006, 05:00 PM
Good post Smoke,

Excellent advice to which I'd add that Yoga, especially some of the balance poses like Tree really help. Also both Yoga and Pilates strengthen core muscles which are critical to balance.

Skiing, mountain biking and trail running are good forms of cardio that also work balance. Hiking off trail, in rough, rocky terrain with a pack when possible will prepare you for hunting season.

Also, I heard that blueberries contain a substance that aids in balance. I have a friend that said after eating them almost daily for several months his skiing improved greatly. I don't know if it works, but what the heck they taste good!

Ed T

02-09-2006, 05:22 PM
Thanks, I'm going to try some of your tips. In my case, I'm getting older and have inner ear damage from artillery concussion. In addition to chronic tinnitus I have noticed my balance is a bit off especially going down stairs.

02-09-2006, 06:28 PM
Smoke- I just skimmed through it for now...BUT...awesome post!


02-10-2006, 01:06 AM
My Seattlite son called me this Dec. wanting me to take him chukar hunting, a nice surprise since he has never showed any interest. Until I was 41 I was a chukar hunting fanatic living in chukar heaven (at 42 I turned to big game hunting). Harvesting them was like picking cantaloupes, not because I was born a great shot but because I practiced more than any 100 hunters combined. In my prime I was shooting 2 1/2 cases of Win. AA. per year, which also explains my ringing ears and shot hearing.

Now fastforward 23 years and contrast my old prowess with the results of the outing with my son. I scratched a single unlucky bird out of 12 shots. Balance when gunning fast birds on steep hillsides is always a challenge, young or old, but on this pitiful day I was off balance even on the easy shots. Moreover, several good shots were not even attempted because I was so twisted up. I was on ice skates and there was nothing I could immediately do about it except roar with frustration.

I knew that I was taking more missteps around 60 (I'll be 64 next month), but the deterioration when put to a rigorous test was shocking. I had become a caricature of my old self without a clue (suppressing the mirror's grey-haired stranger with thick stands of hair protruding out the nose and ears). Now I have the cause and the cure. Thanks Smokepole.

As for you young bucks, take heed, for your immortality and rivers of testosterone are as enduring as a mountain mist.

02-10-2006, 04:22 AM
Ed T mentioned core strength, which is important. If anyone is interested, there's a guy named Mark Verstegen with 2 or 3 good books on core training. The exercise described above with the medicine ball standing on one foot is one of his, and it's a very good one.

Rusty Hook
02-10-2006, 07:23 AM
My approack is a little different and less diciplined than some of yours. I try to do a stretching and exercise program as a warm up five days a week, with pole walks with the dog twice a day, and alternating pole runs and bicycle riding every other day. In season, I cross country ski one day a week or do some hike in fishing at altitude. I also try to do a few backpack fishing trips over the summer. This keeps me in reasonably good condition for the backpack hunting that I do.

I believe the skiing and negotiating the slippery stream bottoms that I do keeps my ballance up to some extent. I prefer to go places and move my body over time and distances to doing stationary exercises in a gym. I am not training for an athletic event, just trying to stay in good enough shape to enjoy my outdoor activities.

All the advice given above has been excellent. Thanks to everyone for providing it. Smokepole, I hope you are recovering nicely. As hard as you are working at it, I am sure that you will make as full of a recovery as is possible. Good luck, Rusty.

02-10-2006, 11:49 AM
Some good exercises that I hadn't heard of, I like the sound of that wobble board. One I was given for balance and leg strength was as follows. With a platform 8 to 10 inches high (one of those step aerobic ones is good and doesn't slip) in front of you squat down then jump up onto the platform landing on your toes (not flat footed) in one motion while staying on your toes squat down on the platform then return to standing, step off and repeat. Good for balance and as the guys above have said harder than it sounds, you'll do less than you think you should be able to at first.

02-10-2006, 12:23 PM
Thanks, Rusty. Even though I still have nerve damage in the lower leg, it’s rehabilitated to the point that I can do anything I want, including skiing, backpacking, and packing out elk meet for the last several years running.

I like to get my exercise out in the great outdoors too. There’s no better way to get in shape for backpacking than backpacking in the mountains. Unfortunately, many of us are chained to a desk in the big city and don’t get out as much as we’d like, so these kinds of exercises are the best we can do.

Also, if you’re trying to build up your balance and leg strength the best way to do it is with a combination of exercises that target specific muscles and the types of outdoor activities you mention. Exercises that focus on specific muscles can give those muscles a thorough workout in a few minutes a day. You build those muscles by exercising them to the point of fatigue, and doing multiple sets of exercises. When I was just starting my rehabilitation, the muscles in my lower leg were atrophied from the nerve damage and lack of use, similar to someone whose balance has degenerated. I don’t think I would have been able to build back the leg strength without those exercises.

It’s funny that you mentioned walking on slick stream bottoms. Some of my favorite streams here are filled with rocks the size of grapefruits to cinder blocks, and they’re covered with “rock snot.” Right after my injury, these rocks gave me fits and I used to fall down at least once or twice a day. This was a constant source of amusement for my best fishing buddy, he never cut me any slack. After going through my rehab program, I hardly fall down any more, can’t remember the last time I did. But my buddy does, so this is now a constant source of amusement for me. Last fall, I was fishing the tail of a deep fast run, and he was fishing just upstream. I wasn’t paying attention, but out of the corner of my eye I noticed he was edging closer and closer, horning in on my fishing hole. I turned to tell him to get lost, and noticed that his eyes were the size of saucers as he danced downstream, holding his rod over his head, with water pouring into his chest waders. This was so funny I almost busted a gut laughing, and it was even funnier watching him sit on the tailgate of my truck and wring out his sopping wet clothes, shivering, while I drank a cold beer.

02-11-2006, 08:10 AM
Good post , Smoke. It is shocking to realize how much more work it takes to keep the body parts functioning when you're an old guy. I'm hugely fortunate to live where I can jog off trails in the hills most days with my dog, or ski x-c in the winter. As Ed T. suggested, some of the Yoga and marital arts :rolleyes: exercises can help a lot as well. Partial kneebends and one-legged exercises with a moderate pack. Balance usually isn't much of a problem for me unless I've had too much wine. I do have a chronic problem with deterioration in my lower back, which sometimes causes discomfort accompanied by pops, clicks and clunks. But even there, stretching, glucosamine and frequent exercise including resistance work helps a lot, and the Bow Flex has been a huge asset in that respect. Sometimes I think Aleve is just a vitamin we need more of when we're older.

Looking back, I can't advise folks strongly enough to really baby and safeguard skeletal parts like knees and backs. When you're young, you can easily damage those things without realizing it, only to pay a price later on.

02-12-2006, 07:29 AM
May this thread remain picture less...

02-12-2006, 07:34 AM
Sorry, CCH, I deleted my smart-a** reply to Poel's post because I thought it may have been in less than good taste.

But to be fair to CCH, I was asking Poel about his reference to "marital arts exercises" above.

02-12-2006, 09:27 AM
Smokepole, I'm probably not the best judge but I thought it was "good enough" taste. /images/%%GRAEMLIN_URL%%/laugh.gif Thanks for keeping my smart aleck reply propped up though.

02-12-2006, 10:01 AM
At fifty, I find this to be a very useful addition to one's kit. Get comfortable, and you'll get good rest.

02-12-2006, 10:35 AM
I'm forty and have to be very carefull as I was diagnosed with a ruptured disc and at least one herniated disc a few years ago.

This was definately caused by my thinking (and living) like I was a stuntman when I was a snotnose punk. Like skin cancer you pay the price later for what you did as a kid.

As long as I keep fit and avoid the obvious back killers (anything that compresses the spine) I'm OK. Been very lucky the last 2 years with my back. I still carry some Vioxx everywhere I go just in case.

I find walking/hiking in the snow to really help with balance as you cause the balancing muscles to fire with almost every footstep. I also snowshoe a lot but I find walking in a foot of loose-packed snow to be better in this regard.

I still get airborn a lot on my Mountain Bike. /images/%%GRAEMLIN_URL%%/laugh.gif

02-12-2006, 10:54 AM
It's interesting to watch the numbers pop up. I'm 42 (for a couple more months), and like everyone else, I plan to do what I do for a long, long time.

02-12-2006, 10:54 AM
Great website Anthracitic, especially if you're like me and travel a lot; also great for customizing your first aid kit.

Does Biofreeze work as a cold pack only, or are there other active ingredients?

Sawtooth, great to hear that you're such a young guy, you can help me haul out my elk when I'm too old. If there's anything I can do to help keep you in shape, just let me know.

Yolla Bolly
02-12-2006, 12:41 PM
Smokepole----Good subject sir---thanks for intensifying the guilt I was aready feeling at sitting here, instead of making the effort to grab the bow and go out today----now it is time to hit the sack before going to work tonight. May we all stimulate one another to good works (and workouts).

02-12-2006, 01:59 PM
Hey Smoke,

I don't have any trouble finding things to keep me busy, but I'll haul elk meat for you any time! /images/%%GRAEMLIN_URL%%/laugh.gif

02-12-2006, 03:22 PM
Biofreeze is a rub on pain relieving gel that works on sore necks, backs, muscles, etc.
At first it feels cold, then it feels really warm. After fifteen minutes pain is relieved and one can sleep. It rinses off your hands in cold water.
Truly great stuff!!!

Buck W
02-12-2006, 05:40 PM
Excellent post, Smokepole!

Lots of very good ideas from all.

I had a rude awakening trying some "simple" balance exercises a few years ago. I thought my balance was good because I had been stepping off calf roping horses until my early fifies. What a shock! One item which has been helpful to me which has not been mentioned is a BOSU ball. It is a hemisphere about 2 feet across with the flat side being rigid/solid and the round side inflated rubber. The exercises are performed on an unstable surface with one leg or two. It has been very helpful in strengthening my stabilizer muscles and improving my balance. YMMV.

It's motivating and inspiring to read what others are doing to keep themselves fit for the backcountry and active life. I turn 60 this year with a body that has been used hard (basketball, football, rugby, rowing, armored cavalry, skiing and rodeo), but which I try to take care of so I can keep playing, especially with my sons who are in their 20's and very fit.

I knew a fellow years ago who said he didn't want to die with all of his parts working..Carpe Diem. Seems like a lot of you (and I) are following his advice.


02-12-2006, 08:04 PM
Mr. Smokepole-Great Post! I guess it's a sign we're feeling our age if we checked into this one but it is an important subject.
"If you don't use it you will loose it."

poel-I hate to say it but I lived on Aleve for 2-3 months about 10 years ago due to a leg injury and I am convinced it put me in a depression, as soon as I stopped taking it I was back too normal.
I was also told a story (a reliable friend) where Aleve caused some stomach damage.

02-12-2006, 09:52 PM
GJZ - You're right about drawbacks to Aleve and I meant my comment tongue- in-cheek. Besides stomachs, I understand it is also not good for kidneys in large doses for long periods. Or with alcohol. I hadn't heard about depression, but that is interesting.

My uses have been of relatively short duration, but it has been great for pains that otherwise might reduce my inclination to exercise. Sometimes after a hard day carrying a load, or an extended mountain jog, I take some to help reduce inflamation in back and leg muscles. In combination with stretching it seems to help recovery overnight.

02-13-2006, 05:01 AM
I'm not certain your balance is what goes. It may be your flexibility, which manifests itself as a loss of balance.

Hence, I'm back on Pilates which seems to help my balance as much as anything.

02-13-2006, 06:26 AM
For you guys doing yoga is there a specific type of yoga that you'd recommend? There's a yoga studio here next door to my office that offers heated yoga classes where they pump the temperature up to 99 degrees with 60% humidity for 90 minutes. Everyone that goes to these classes swears by them and I've been thinking about doing them for two years now but just haven't done it yet.

Any experience with these heated yoga classes?

Ed T
02-13-2006, 07:22 AM

I haven't tried Bikram yoga, the heated classes you mention. Some people really like it, thou I have heard they go thru the 26 set poses quite quickly. The heat is supposed to make your body more flexible.

Most of my yoga had been Iyengar based. With Iyengar yoga there is precise positioning in the poses and it uses a number of props such as blocks, bolsters and straps to get you to the proper position if your body isn't naturaly flexible enough to get there on it's own.

I also really like a Vinyasa style class where the poses are flowed through quickly. It is more of an aerobic workout. Probably more similar the the Bikram style without the heat.

Ed T

02-13-2006, 07:23 AM
poel-It did work as far as eliminating the pain, but it got to the point where I was taking it ahead of time (before work) just in anticipation of the pain. If I took it periodically it probally wouldn't have had the same affect. I won't take it at all now because of that experience.

02-13-2006, 07:52 AM
More problems with Aleve...

web page (http://www.healthatoz.com/healthatoz/Atoz/news/hs523017.jsp)

02-13-2006, 08:22 AM
LG- RE: Yoga -I happened to be in Oregon this past summer and there was a Yoga place exactly as you described offering unlimited classes for 10 days for $10. So I thought I would try it.

The workouts kicked my butt! My spine was popping like a coffee pot and I left puddles of sweat on everything and anything that came near me. Interestingly, although it was a thorough workout, I wasn't really sore the next day?

While some of the metaphysical philosophies of Yoga are not completely compatible with my system of faith, I found the physical exercises by themselves to be deceptively powerful and effective.

I have all sorts of old injuries that like to remind me of their existence every once in a while, but after just a couple of days of doing the exercises everything seemed to feel better and I felt stronger overall.

I bought a book and now try and do some of the exercises at home (without the heat /images/%%GRAEMLIN_URL%%/wink.gif ). It's not the same as the classes, but they seem to be just what the doctor ordered for Geezers who want to "Keep On Truckin" (only old farts will recognize that last pun /images/%%GRAEMLIN_URL%%/laugh.gif )

02-13-2006, 08:24 AM
All the news about alternate pain killers make me glad I decided long ago to stick with plain old aspirin. I've never had any adverse affects with the old tried and true, and recent discoveries seems to bear out that aspirin is truly a wonder drug for adults.

02-13-2006, 08:44 AM
I'll let you guys know how the yoga works out since I'm probably going to do it. They also have the 10 days for $10 and I'm going to give it a go.

Since we are talking about yoga and pilates I figure I can throw out something else I'm looking into without fear of too much ridicule...Tae bo.

I have a good friend that swears by these workouts and he's a normal guy that spends quite a bit of his time working out. He said it's a great combination of cardio and resistance and the high intensity side of it keeps you burning calories for many hours after your workout is complete. It helps with balance and coordination as well.