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Lighten up! Thinking might reduce your risk of falls

 

Look up, think up, lighten up!

Look up, think up, lighten up!

Think, “Allow my head to float up at the top of my spine. Allow my bones to send me up.” What happens to you? Do you feel a little taller and lighter? As it turns out, this simple wish, the first in the Alexander Technique lexicon, was powerful enough to improve balance and stability in elder adults in ways that are consistent with fall prevention. How safe do you feel in the shower? Falling is the top cause of accidental death in adults older than 60.

In a preliminary study (October, 2015), led by Dr. Rajal G. Cohen at the Mind in Movement Laboratory, University of Idaho, 20 adults between ages 60 and 80 had their stature and balance measured while employing three different mental strategies for changing posture.

(1) In the Relaxed condition, participants were asked to imagine that they were tired and lazy, and to stand as if no one could see them.

(2) In the Effort condition, participants were asked to use muscular effort to pull themselves up to their greatest height.

(3). In the Lighten up condition, participants were asked to imagine their head floating up off the top of the spine and their bones supporting them in an upwards direction.

Participants performed two movements, a) 30 seconds of rhythmic weight shifting from side-to-side at the rate of 72 beats per minute, and b) raising one foot rapidly. Three measurements were taken: 1) neck length, measured as the distance between the first and 7th cervical vertebrae, 2) movement of the center of mass (forward/backwards and side to side), and 3) both height and rhythm of movement.

Step aside from your screen for a second and try shifting your weight quickly from side to side for 30 seconds. Try each movement strategy. Which is easiest for you? Can you keep a steady rhythm? Which approach makes you feel most coordinated and balanced? Test a friend, and maybe get a baseline (i.e. no strategy) measurement first. Then vary the order of conditions. What are your findings?

Cohen et al. found that neck length was significantly longer in the Lighten up condition than the relaxed condition. This finding suggests that directed thinking with no muscular effort can enhance upright stance and reduce compression of cervical vertebrae. Both the Effort condition and the Relaxed condition caused the center of mass to sway significantly more during movement. This suggests that the Effort and Relax conditions worsened balance and coordination, whereas the Lighten up condition improved postural control and stability. Finally, the self report feedback from participants confirmed that the Lighten up instructions were easier to use, and led to movement that felt more balanced and secure. The latter finding is important, because fear of falling can often lead elders to restrict activity. Over time, this leads to further weakness and worsening of motor control. Could a sense of ease and balance in movement lead elders to move more? How do these findings compare to your self experiment?

It’s important to note that this was a preliminary study, with a small sample size, so results must be taken with a grain of salt. Further research is needed to measure the impact of Lighten up instruction on fall risk.

The beauty of the Lighten up intervention is that it’s just a thought. Our thinking is completely portable, requires no money and very little time. Mindfulness is sweeping the nation as a positive strategy for health and well-being. This is one of the first studies that shows that a mindfulness approach based on the Alexander Technique might improve balance and coordination in ways that could significantly decrease risk of accidental falls.

For further information, or to get a copy of the poster session, visit The Mind in Movement Laboratory
Rajal G. Cohen, Ph.D. @ rcohen@uidaho.edu

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient!