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Living Well

Health and wellness tips from Indiana University

Living Well for August discusses the following topics:

Balance training: Helpful at any age
No point stewing over food choices
Water exercise: Strength and balance training in one cool workout


Balance training is helpful for all ages.

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Balance can be taken for granted until it's lost -- or recovered. Losing balance abilities can result in broken bones or a devastating reduction in one's quality of life. Recovering them can be life-changing. "We're talking about longevity and quality of life," said Michelle Miller, an Indiana University fitness expert whose balance classes have gotten rave reviews. "We hear, 'This class has changed my life because I can pick up my grandchild now,' or, 'I can leave my house without being afraid of falling,' or 'I can safely walk my dog.'" The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association issued new exercise guidelines recently that encourage people older than 65 to consider balance training to help prevent falls. Miller, coordinator of the fitness specialist bachelor's degree program in IU Bloomington's Department of Kinesiology, said people of any age may experience balance impairment. Conditions such as diabetes or hearing loss, the use of multiple medications that might not interact well, and poor strength can affect the balance of someone who looks perfectly healthy. "We need to teach people how to be conscious of how they move both internally and externally, in other words, how to safely move in their environment," Miller said. "I'm still amazed at how little many people understand how their bodies move until someone teaches them how to move in their own spaces."

Miller offers these considerations for balance training:

  • Expert help. Balance is more complicated than many people think. It involves three different body systems -- vision, inner ear and touch. Muscle strength and posture play an important role, too. Like other mind-body exercises (yoga, Pilates), a class can help people reach their goals safely and more effectively. Miller said some participants in the local classes reported remarkable progress in just six to eight weeks. These classes, however, included hands-on assistance and close attention to safety issues. In upcoming classes, instructors will combine education about balance with an obstacle course that lets participants practice their skills in real-life situations similar to their current environments.
  • Get a balance assessment. As useful as they are, a balance assessment performed by someone without adequate training could do more harm than good, Miller said. People should inquire into whether a fitness professional or physical therapist has received training in how to perform the assessments. Miller's students in the IU fitness specialist program become knowledgeable about the science and application of balance assessment and training. To practice their skills, the students will be performing balance assessments this fall at the local YMCA.
  • Who should consider it? Balance training is appropriate for any age, if properly monitored, Miller said. It should be considered by people who have a history of falling, a lack confidence in their ability to move around outside or inside the home, or think their lifestyle is inhibited by their fear of falls. "Self-confidence is huge in this," Miller said. "I think truly that's what keeps people in their homes, inactive and afraid to move."

Miller can be reached at 812-855-8167 and Top

Can't decide what to eat? Save yourself some time and just grab something. Rather than weighing the numerous attributes of competing meal choices -- such as price, taste, convenience and nutrition, considering just your top "must haves" will usually land you with the same dish, according to Indiana University researchers. Benjamin Scheibehnne, a visiting researcher in cognitive science, and Peter Todd, a professor of cognitive science, psychology and informatics at IU Bloomington, put methods of meal choice to the test. Using 20 meals from a food court in Germany (dishes such as Big Macs, sushi, bagels and lox, bratwurst and currywurst), they and their colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin asked study participants to rate important attributes about food in general and then about these particular food dishes. The study participants then were asked to choose between numerous pairs of the 20 dishes, allowing the researchers to run a computerized analysis comparing the actual choices with the choices predicted by the study participants' earlier rankings.

  • Background: The traditional model holds that people generally consider all the various attributes of the food before choosing a meal. Todd said this kind of reasoning may exist in an ideal world, but he prefers to study the decision-making processes used when people and their environments are not perfect and information is limited.
  • Findings: "What we were able to find is that the complicated mechanism for choosing between pairs of lunch dishes was no better than a much simpler decision mechanism to explain people's choices," Todd said. "With the simpler mechanism, people have a rank ordering of those dimensions, like price and taste, and they first think of the most important dimension to them. If the two items they are comparing are different on that one dimension, they just stop and choose right then. If it's price, they choose the cheapest one and stop. If the two items are close, they go to the next most important dimension. If the items are still close on that dimension, they go to the third."

Besides offering a research-grounded basis for the perennial demand to just pick something and close the refrigerator door (and stop letting out the cold air), the findings have evolutionary implications as well. "An organism that takes more time to decide which of two appropriate foods it will choose to eat will lose out to another organism that sweeps in and makes a quick decision and steals its lunch," said Todd, whose research interests involve adaptation and evolutionary psychology, with a particular interest in humans' and other animals' food and mate choices.

The findings were published recently in the journal Appetite. Todd can be reached at and 812-855-3914. Top

"Fast and frugal food choices: Uncovering individual decision heuristics," Appetite, 2007.03.224

Water Exercise

Water exercise workouts combine strength training and balance training and can include low-intensity cardio, too.

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Is the summer heat zapping your health and fitness efforts? Try water exercise. Not only is water refreshing, it offers a gentle yet challenging way to combine strength training and balance training, both of which are recommended as part of the new exercise guidelines offered by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. Water's buoyancy and constant resistance offer many advantages, ranging from a perpetual balance-training activity to more rounded weight-training -- all while reducing the strain on joints. "No matter what you're doing, you're automatically muscle balancing, working opposite muscles," said Indiana University fitness expert Carol Kennedy-Armbruster, who has been teaching water exercise classes for 27 years. "Balance training is easier because buoyancy assists the movement. We can do balance exercises throughout the whole workout because the water adds support, and we are in an upright functional position."

Here are some of the other benefits:

  • Provides a low-intensity cardio workout once participants are strong enough to move quickly through the water
  • Provides a degree of flexibility training because of the range of motion required for the moves
  • It's a non-weight-bearing exercise so it can be suitable for people with hip and knee conditions
  • Little can be seen underwater, reducing the anxiety people feel from body image or peer pressure issues often present in aerobics or other group exercise classes
  • Enjoyable for special populations, such as people who have arthritis, because the water can warm the joints

Armbruster is a lecturer in the Department of Kinesiology in IUB's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. She can be reached at 812-855-6083 and Top

For further assistance with these tips, contact Tracy James at 812-855-0084 or

EDITORS: This monthly tip sheet is based on Indiana University faculty research, teaching and service. "Living Well Through Healthy Lifestyles" is the guiding philosophy of IU Bloomington's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. In keeping with that philosophy, this tip sheet offers information related to both physical and mental well-being. Faculty in other IU schools and departments also contribute their expertise in this area.