How Agile Aging Helps to Prevent Falls with Integration of the Movement Senses

How Agile Aging Helps to Prevent Falls with Integration of the Movement Senses

by Valerie Baadh Garrett

We cannot fully prevent falls, but we can help in big ways and small to reduce risk of falling.  We can help reduce fear of falling, practice activities to strengthen our balance and mobility, and eliminate many hazards in our daily lives that can cause falls.

Agile Aging’s programs help prevent falls by applying the science and art of the fundamental processes of sensory integration: of movement, touch, body awareness, vitality, sight and sound.  Through a single agility activity or exercise, through a series of activities such as our Basic Class, and in the holistic practices we promote in working with individuals and communities, we can invite the participant to joyfully engage and integrate the sensory system that supports balance, agility, and mobility.

Ideally, these senses move together, in a harmony not unlike a lyrical piece of music, as our movement senses, including our eyes and spatial awareness, continually interact with daily life. As we age, it is normal that these senses get, well, squeaking or out of tune with one another, resulting in loss of stability, confidence, and mobility.

Sensory integration, or sensory processing, happens within the mind-body connection beginning before birth and continuing through the first years of life. Science studies the phenomena of SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder) in young children especially when it interferes with behavior and learning, but little has been studied at the other end of life, when the seamless flow of sense impressions begins to dis-integrate.  Such is the natural development within our lifetime: we integrate the mind-body senses in the first years of our lives, and  they disintegrate in the last years.  Falling is one such result of the loss of integrated senses.

Each person’s balance system is a complex interplay of three senses: the visual senses of the eyes, the vestibular sense of balance within the ear, and the proprioceptive sense of self-movement of the body’s limbs and spaces.  Agile Aging’s founder, somatic movement therapist Valerie Baadh Garrett, has researched therapeutic approaches (including Spacial Dynamics®, sports psychology, geriatric kinesiology, and dance therapy) to enhance these systems. She has choreographed a progressive series of agility activities that not only strengthen each sense both separately and together, but delivers a way to practice them with joy and verve through the use of imagery, story-telling, and music in community classes or in private sessions.  These activities are shared with professionals via live workshops, via DVDs and streaming video, and in instructor trainings in California, Oregon, and Massachusetts.

Fear of falling can increase the tendency to fall.  When one is fearful, one retreats, both physically, emotionally, and even spatially, thus inhabiting a smaller spaces, taking smaller steps, and moving less frequently.  Through practicing different dynamics of movement with the body and with the mind, each individual can learn to expand themselves with a lively interaction with the people and places of everyday life. Agile Aging is one such approach. I encourage you to add some agility practice for both mind and body each day.

  • “Sensory experiences include touch, movement, body awareness, sight, sound and the pull of gravity (Koomar, 1996). Sensory Integration is a process by which the brain interprets sensory stimuli from the environment (Hutch-Rasmussen, 1995). Sensory Integration provides a crucial foundation for more complex learning and behavior.  This process focuses on three basic senses: tactile, vestibular and proprioception which are the building blocks of sensory integration. The tactile sense includes light touch, pain, temperature and pressure.  These senses provide protection reactions for survival.Dysfunction in this area includes withdrawal from touch, refusing to eat certain foods, isolation, irritability and distractibility and hyperactivity (Hutch-Rasmussen, 1995). The vestibular is the inner ear system structures and one manifestation of an intact system is the ability to keep your balance. The dysfunction manifests in walking on uneven surfaces, climbing stairs and being fearful in space (Hutch-Rasmussen, 1995). Proprioception provides subconscious awareness of where the body is in relation to its surroundings (Hutch-Rasmussen, 1995). Dysfunction in this area shows a tendency to fall, lack of awareness of where the body is in relation to its surroundings and eating in a sloppy manner. Another form of proprioception is praxis or motor planning. When the system is working, the body properly obtains accurate information from the sensory systems regarding what the body is sensing. Dysfunction in this area will be manifested as language/speech delays, impulsivity in a new situation, frustration, aggression or withdrawal giving the appearance of depression. Using sensory integration therapy in other populations has been found to increase functionality and the ability to repeat daily routines more easily. Though little research has been done with the elderly using sensory integration techniques, it is hypothesized that geriatric populations showing symptoms could respond in a similar manner. “ Leslee Wiodyka, Albright College, from The Effects of Sensory Integration Therapy on Cognitive Functioning

The 3 Aspects of Balance

The 3 Aspects of Balance

by Valerie Baadh Garrett

We all balance. If we didn’t, we’d be falling down all the time!  Our balance grows more organized in childhood as we learn to roll, stand, and walk. Then, in our elder years, the sense of balance unravels.  While most of us have heard about “sensory integration” during the first years of a child’s life, a number of interesting studies are now being conducted around the sensory dis-integration occurring in our later years.

What is balance?

As a young ballet dancer, striving and often struggling in sustained balances, sometimes on pointe, I was told by my teachers that the key to balance was to “find my center and hold onto it” I looked around at other dancers who seemed to be doing just that, and pondered just what they were finding (center?) and how they were “holding” it.  Later in life, I realized that this was terrible advice, totally counter-productive, and just plain wrong. (Dance teachers, please take notice! Much more helpful imagery can be found; check out Eric Franklin’s work*, for example.)

Balance doesn’t have a center; it’s the nexus of an intricate interplay of dynamics. The result is balance.  Trying to “hold” it is a misguided concept: balance is not a still point of perfection, but rather an ongoing activity of balancing.  You can test this yourself: stand comfortably near a sturdy chair or wall (in case you need some support) with your feet together. Close your eyes.  Observe your “balance.”  Is it a still point of perfection?  If so, congratulations!  But I suspect your balance is a more active experience, one of small and subtle shifts; of moving this way, then that way, never coming to a still-point.  Right?

Science tells us there are three body systems involved in balance. Agile Aging’s founder Valerie Baadh Garrett describes them in this short Mondays in Motion video.

3 Aspects of Balance from The Movement Academy Project on Vimeo.

Balance is a movement activity.  We can strengthen our balance by challenging each one of the three body systems in turn. We do that quite specifically in our Agile Aging “Rainbow Wobblies” activity when we stand on one foot, lift our gaze, “spread our wings” as we spatially expand ourselves, and carefully wobble.  When we “follow the arc of the rainbow overhead” we are challenging our spatial and vision system to pick up the slack as the vestibular system of the inner ear is de-stabilized as our head moves.  Movement by movement, we can shift from excluding one and then another of these three systems. In this manner, we strengthen our balance by isolating the different body systems that contribute to stability, then integrating them again, over and over.  Sensory integration, helping the body organize its many (more than 12!) different senses, is not just for the very young.

Balance is also a spatial activity. We can expand our range of balance by exploring the spaces around our body.  We begin with experiencing gravity and her playmate levity or lightness. Activities that involve expansion and contraction can also offer pathways to an heightened sense of one’s physical and spatial self. Similarly, doing an activity with a partner can give one the experience of moving out into the world, towards or with the partner, a great shift of spatial relationship when one is mostly by oneself. Moving fully through three planes of space (horizontal, frontal, and symmetry) can also strengthen the somato-sensory integration, at any age. The movement approach of Spacial Dynamics®, among others, has many activities with which to explore these movement fundamental themes.

From our first movements of life, we move. Movement is the key to balance: balance is the result of the subtle activity of multiple body systems working together, through movement. Everyday movement such as walking helps, and specialty activities to practice movement integration helps too.

So, let’s get moving!

Read more about Agile Aging here.

Rainbow Wobblies can be found on our Agile Aging Basic Class DVD, in our online store, or learned from one of our certified Agile Aging instructors in community classes.

An optimal state estimation model of sensory integration in human postural balance. Arthur D Kuo 2005 J. Neural Eng. 2 S235

Attention influences sensory integration for postural control in older adults. Mark S Redfern, J.Richard Jennings, Christopher Martin, Joseph M Furman. Gait & Posture – December 2001 (Vol. 14, Issue 3, Pages 211-216)

*Franklin, Eric. Dance imagery for technique and performance. Human Kinetics, 1996.

Matthews, Paul. Space is Human.

Rose, Debra J. Fallproof: a comprehensive balance and mobility training program, Human Kinetics, 2003.