Lighten Up! Postural Instructions Affect Static and Dynamic Balance in Healthy Older Adults

Innov Aging. 2020 Mar 24;4(2):igz056. doi: 10.1093/geroni/igz056. eCollection 2020.


Background and objectives: Increased fall risk in older adults is associated with declining balance. Previous work showed that brief postural instructions can affect balance control in older adults with Parkinson's disease. Here, we assessed the effects of brief instructions on static and dynamic balance in healthy older adults.

Research design and methods: Nineteen participants practiced three sets of instructions, then attempted to implement each instructional set during: (1) quiet standing on foam for 30 s with eyes open; (2) a 3-s foot lift. "Light" instructions relied on principles of reducing excess tension while encouraging length. "Effortful" instructions relied on popular concepts of effortful posture correction. "Relax" instructions encouraged minimization of effort. We measured kinematics and muscle activity.

Results: During quiet stance, Effortful instructions increased mediolateral jerk and path length. In the foot lift task, Light instructions led to the longest foot-in-air duration and the smallest anteroposterior variability of the center of mass, Relax instructions led to the farthest forward head position, and Effortful instructions led to the highest activity in torso muscles.

Discussion and implications: Thinking of upright posture as effortless may reduce excessive co-contractions and improve static and dynamic balance, while thinking of upright posture as inherently effortful may make balance worse. This may partly account for the benefits of embodied mindfulness practices such as tai chi and Alexander technique for balance in older adults. Pending larger-scale replication, this discovery may enable physiotherapists and teachers of dance, exercise, and martial arts to improve balance and reduce fall risk in their older students and clients simply by modifying how they talk about posture.

Keywords: Aging; Alexander technique; Dance; Electromyography; Embodied mindfulness; Exercise; Feldenkrais; Kinematics; Mobility; Pilates; Posture; Rehabilitation; Tai chi; Yoga.