Grace T. DeSimone, ACSM-CPT, ACSM-GEI, editor of the American College of Sports Medicine’s Resources for the Group Fitness Instructor Manual (LWW 2011) and associate editor of its Health & Fitness Journal, a past IDEA Health & Fitness Association Program Director of the Year, and the current Wellness and Group Fitness Director of the Wyckoff Family YMCA in New Jersey. GraceDeSimone.com
Get the best of Bottom Line delivered right to your in-box
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Balance training isn’t just for preventing falls later in life—good balance is essential for everyone, and it helps reduce the severity of an injury when you take a spill at any age. Even if you think you have great balance now, you’ll benefit from adding balance-enhancing exercises to your day. Don’t wait until a problem occurs—these exercises can help you avoid one.
Why balance matters: Balance is an integral part of everyday activities. Technically speaking, it is the ability to control your body when you’re upright whether you are moving or standing still. Every time you step from one foot to the other, that’s a balancing act!
Balance also helps with proprioception, or body awareness—the ability to know where you are in space at any given time. Examples of proprioception: Typing without having to look at the keyboard…walking in the dark without losing your balance. Better balance builds confidence and prepares your body for any sport. Even people who do cardio and strength training should include balance and stability exercises in their routines.
Don’t assume that just because you can walk easily, you’re doing enough to promote balance. There’s always benefit to balance work, but the younger and stronger you are when you start, the better you’ll be for it later in life.
Do It Right
For most of us, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends doing balance exercises at least two to three times a week. For older adults at risk of falling, the recommendation is three or more times per week and possibly a structured fall-prevention program. The National Council on Aging offers a list of evidence-based programs at NCOA.org/article/evidence-based-falls-prevention-programs, and many communities offer free or modestly priced programs.
Best: Regardless of your age, incorporate a few minutes of balance exercises into every day. To ensure you are doing these exercises safely…
Be sure you have support—a doorway, counter, wall or sturdy chair that you can hold with both hands, especially when you first start doing the exercises. As you gain confidence, decrease your level of support—use one hand instead of two or just your fingertips, and eventually no support (but keep your source of support handy just in case). Suggestion: Do these exercises in the kitchen while you’re waiting for your morning coffee to brew or stirring a pot of stew…or combine them with an existing habit such as brushing your teeth.
Make sure your posture is correct. If your head is jutting forward, that’s 20 pounds (the weight of your head plus the force it exerts on your neck) throwing you off balance. Your posture should maintain the three natural curves of your spine—at your neck, mid-back and low back. Your head should be above your shoulders, and the tops of your shoulders should be over your hips.
Work with a partner to boost motivation and be accountable to each other. Or you might prefer the camaraderie of a class and working with a qualified professional who can help you fine-tune your technique.
Building Up Your Balance
There are two types of balance—static (standing still) and dynamic (when you are moving, such as walking). It’s important to exercise both.
Static Exercises: Each of the following exercises can be repeated three to five times.
Wide Stance: Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Imagine you’re on a moving boat or train and have nothing to hold onto. Bend at the knees, and press your feet into the floor to steady yourself. Hold for 30 seconds.
Narrow Stance: Stand with feet together, centered in line with your belly button. Your toes should face forward, not inward or outward. Hold for 30 seconds.
Inline Stance: Looking straight ahead, stand with one foot immediately behind the other foot so that the back foot’s toes touch the front heel. Hold for 30 seconds. Reverse stance and repeat.
Stork Stance: Stand on one foot, raising the nonweighted foot mid knee height (or as high as you deem comfortable). Balance for up to 30 seconds. Switch feet and repeat.
Standing March: March in place slowly for 20 to 30 seconds, lifting the moving leg until the thigh is parallel with the floor and bringing it down completely before reversing legs.
Chair Rises: Sit toward the front of a sturdy chair. Shift your weight to the front of your feet, and slowly stand up by contracting your core, leg and butt muscles. The goal is to rise without using your hands. When you’re able, increase the difficulty by crossing your arms over your chest.
As you gain confidence, challenge yourself by activating your vestibular system—located in the inner ear—and visual system. These two sensory systems provide your brain with information that helps your body adjust as needed. Add one of these elements at a time (always bring your head and eyes back to center between repetitions)…
Look down and up.
Look over at different objects in the room.
Move your head from side to side.
Extend one arm in front of you. Raise your index finger. Using only your eyes, follow your index finger as you move your arm from side to side.
Close your eyes. Once that feels comfortable, move your head from left to right, then right to left.
Another option: Do these exercises on a balance pad (a rectangular piece of specialty foam) or a BOSU balance trainer, a rubber dome set on a rigid platform. Both are designed to create an unstable surface for greater balance training.
Sideways Walking: Step to the left side with your left foot, then bring your right foot to meet it. Continue across the room. Reverse directions, stepping to the right with your right foot.
Heel-to-Toe Inline Walking: Start in the Inline Stance (on page 20), and walk forward by placing one foot directly in front of the other, as though you were on a tightrope. Keep your head up, eyes open and looking forward. Walk this way for the length of the room (or counter if you need support), turn around and return to your starting point.
Backward Walking: Once you’re comfortable with Heel-to-Toe Inline Walking, try going backward to return to your starting point. You’ll be challenged to develop greater focus and coordination because you can’t see behind you. With each step you take backward, place your toes on the ground before your heel (the opposite of forward walking). Keep an even and smooth stride.
Caution: Dehydration, fatigue, certain medications and chronic conditions all can impact your balance. If you have any of these concerns, check in with your doctor about the best balance program for you.
More balance Building Options
Play catch. This childhood game has adult-level benefits. Simply stand two feet from your partner, and gently toss and catch a soft ball. As you progress, toss and catch while standing on one foot, switching feet every few catches. Also gradually increase the distance between you and your partner.
Ancient approaches. If you’re looking for a more engaging exercise that will improve not only balance but also flexibility, coordination, strength and your stress level, consider these Eastern practices with repetitive movements that work on dynamic and static balance…
Tai Chi—its low and grounded movements include rotating the body, which is great for balance.
Yoga—many postures incorporate balance training and target better posture.
Qi Gong—(pronounced chi-gong) its body-mind-and-spirit exercises are designed to increase energy and promote well-being.
Pilates. For many, building core strength—a central aim of Pilates—often is a missing part of the fitness equation, yet it’s an integral part of balance. It can help you overcome muscle imbalances, which impact your overall balance and make exercises like the Stork Stance (on page 20) harder to do.
Resistance (strength) training. Strong muscles factor into balance. A well-rounded program targets all major muscle groups including the arms, core (the back and abdomen) and legs—squats, lunges and calf raises are very effective.
Dance. Any type of dance that suits your fancy can improve balance along with strength and endurance.