Being able to balance your body in space is important at any age. But we rarely think about it until we start losing it. There are many physical components to balance, and there are many factors that can lead to its loss. Some medications, inner ear problems, foot pain and sensitivity, weight changes and even vitamin D deficiency can affect balance. Vision problems and loss of depth perception are significant factors, too.
The good news is that there are ways to not only prevent loss of balance but to drastically improve it at any age.
I am a certified personal trainer with a specialty in core strength and balance development. I work with athletes and older adults. Both of these groups have something in common – performance. Whether you are hiking technical trails, playing soccer or simply trying to avoid falls, the same exercise protocol for balance would be beneficial. I’ve seen first-hand the improved confidence and capability that come from better balance, so you have it when you need it.
The Sensory Inputs Important for Balance
- Vision (your sight)
- Proprioception (touch, or your body’s sense of place in space)
- Vestibular system (our inner ear helping spacial orientation)
If even one of these systems becomes weakened, the other one overcompensates. As we age, our vision gets weaker, and our muscles begin to atrophy — ultimately compromising at least one of the systems that we depend on for proper balance.
Tips and Exercises to Improve your Balance
The way we strengthen one or more of these systems is to alter or take one or more of them away. The series of exercises I describe below (also offered as video tutorials) will challenge you with both static and dynamic balance activities.
Static Balance Activities
Static balance activities improve your ability to maintain a more upright and steady position in space.
Standing and even sitting still requires all of your muscles to be active. When we stand still, we usually rely heavily on our eyes (vision) to tell us where we are.
But vision is only a small part of the sensory input system that you need for balance. We must train our body to know where it is in space without looking. This means the nerve endings in our feet and other parts of the boy must communicate effectively with our brain. The worse they communicate, the more you rely on your eyes to make corrections to your stability.
An easy test and practice for static balance is this simple standing test:
Important: make sure there is a steady chair or another object handy that you can grab and hold on to if you start falling!
Fixate your eyes on a visual target directly in front of you at eye level. Then try to fix your gaze on an object further away. Holding on to a steady object for safety if necessary, stand on one leg. Now close one eye. Feel the wobble? These are your muscles trying to readjust.
Standing on two feet, close two eyes and continue standing. The key is to visualize the target in your mind’s eye as you stand with your eyes closed.
These standing exercises train your vestibular system as well as proprioception.
Dynamic Balance Activities
Dynamic balance activities improve your ability to move the body through space with greater control, speed, and confidence, as well as anticipation and reaction. Dynamic balance helps maintain posture, alignment, and control throughout our daily lives as we navigate through obstacles.
Posture, Alignment, Control
Posture, correct alignment and control are important for avoiding falls.
As you perform the exercise, it is very important to maintain good posture and abdominal engagement, which I call Belly Button Control. Imagine that you’re having your picture taken in your bathing suit and you suck in your stomach – that’s Belly Button Control!
Eight Balance Exercises (Level 1, Beginner)
1. Balance Ball
(if you don’t have a ball, skip to the next set)
Any exercise that is done in an unstable surface automatically increases the intensity of the exercise because you have to use more muscles, including the abdominal muscles, to stay upright and stable. A Balance (Stability) Ball is a great tool to have at home, and especially for balance exercises.
This is a fun, gentle cardio exercise that can be used as a warm-up, or done while you watch TV, etc. Sit directly in the middle of the ball. Engage abdominals (belly button control) – that’s the key point of this exercise – and bounce!
b) Seated Leg Extension
This is an excellent introduction to shifting your weight, and to engaging the abdominals.
Lift your chest, relax your shoulders and engage your belly button control. Fix your gaze on a visual point. Lift one leg, then extend it. Bend the knee again and set on the floor. Reengage your belly button control, repeat on the other side. Make sure to tighten the leg muscles to stabilize the knee as you straighten it. Repeat 12 times on each side.
You can challenge yourself by closing your eyes or reciting the alphabet. Check yourself if you still have the belly button control as you do so.
This is an example of a dynamic balance activity.
Start with a medium stance (feet hip-width apart), fix the gaze on a distant point and engage the abdominals. Raise one knee to waist-height along with the opposite arm. Alternate back and forth for 10-12 reps.
Challenge yourself by closing your eye, reciting the alphabet or your favorite poem. And don’t forget your belly button control!
b) High Knee with Rotation
Pick up a light dumbbell, a ball or a water bottle. Raise the right knee, rotate the upper body past the knee to the right while holding the knee raised. Rotate back to the center and set the leg on the floor. Repeat on the other side for 10-12 reps.
3. Standing Balance
You will need a sturdy chair, and an elastic band (a dog leash or a long belt would do)
a) Straight Leg Balance
Wrap elastic band over your right foot and around the outside of the right leg as shown.
Hold both ends of the band in your right hand while the other hand hovering over the chair for safety.
Lift your chest, relax your shoulders and engage your belly button control. Fix your gaze on a visual point.
Raise the leg a few inches, then slowly do a clockwise circle (away from the midline of your body) leading with your heal. Do 5 reps. Repeat the same exercise doing clockwise circles (towards the midline of your body).
Repeat on the other side 5 times.
4. Step Strategy
a) Lateral Step Strategy.
This exercise will help find the edge of your balance, move past it, and train reaction to catch yourself – so you have it when you need it.
Stand feet hip width apart, proper posture, eyes fixed on a visual target and belly button control. Lean to the right. When you feel the edge of your balance, catch yourself by stepping to the right. Return to center. Repeat 5 times on the right side. Repeat the same on the other side, 5 reps.
b) Forward Step Strategy
This is a variation of the previous exercise where you lean and step forward instead of stepping to the right or left.