It’s easy to take your sense of balance for granted—at least until you start to lose it—but good balance is one of the most essential components of physical fitness. Without good balance even the most simple physical tasks become difficult or hazardous.
Your sense of balance relies on the sensory input from your eyes, your inner ear and the special receptor cells in your muscles, joints and tendons. You respond to these sensory cues by tensing your stabilizing muscles, in particular the “core muscles” in your abdomen, buttocks and lower back, to correct your position and keep you stable.
Improving Your Balance
Almost any type of physical activity improves your ability to balance. However, as people get older, they tend to exercise less because they are more afraid of falling.
Activity improves at least one of the three basic elements of good balance:
- Your sense of equilibrium
- The strength of your stabilizing muscles
- Your general coordination
Good activities for older exercisers include dancing, which requires good body-awareness and coordination, and low-impact activities such as yoga, Pilates and tai chi. In particular, a number of studies have suggested that tai chi, with its emphasis on controlled, choreographed movements, is very effective at cutting falls.
Balance and Osteoporosis
Falls and tumbles can be particularly dangerous if you suffer from brittle bones. This means that it’s even more important to develop and maintain good balance—but also that you need to be careful how you approach exercise. Take each exercise slowly and make sure you have a stable object to hold on to in case you lose your balance. If you have severe osteoporosis, however, you should talk to a doctor or physiotherapist before trying any of these exercises. You may be better performing balance exercises in a pool where there is less risk of hurting yourself if you fall.
These exercises should only take 10 minutes to perform. If you train regularly—around three times a week—your balance will greatly improve within two or three months.
Follow the instructions for each exercise precisely. Some of the exercises have variations. Attempt them only once you are comfortable with the standard exercise. Avoid them if you have a history of falls or balance problems.
Side to Side
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent and place your hands on the front of your thighs.
- Slowly lean your body over to your right, bending your right knee a little more as you do so. Next, lean your body over to your left, bending your left knee a little as you do so. Move from side to side 10 times in a smooth, fluid manner.
- Stand next to a stable chair. Rest one hand lightly on the chair back but don’t use it for support unless you feel you are about to lose your balance. Keeping your leg straight, raise your right foot a few centimetres off the ground.
- Slowly circle your leg 10 times in a clockwise direction. Rest your foot back on the ground for a moment then lift it again and repeat the circling motion 10 times in a counterclockwise direction. Switch legs and repeat the exercise using your left leg.
Once you can perform 25 circles in each direction, try bending your supporting leg a little. This makes it more difficult to balance and works the muscles around your hips, knees and ankles.
Stand on One Leg
- Stand next to a wall or the back of a stable chair. Rest your hands lightly against the wall or the chair back but don’t use it for support unless you feel you are about to lose your balance.
- Lift your right foot off the floor so that you are standing on one leg. If you can, lift your knee as high as your hip. Try to stand like this for eight seconds. If you begin to lose your balance, simply use the wall or the chair to steady yourself. Repeat the exercise using your left leg.
Once you can stand on one leg for eight seconds without needing to steady yourself, try to increase the time to 10 or 12 seconds or even longer. This is a great way to monitor your progress.
- Stand sideways on to a wall and place one hand on the wall for support. Keep your other arm relaxed by your side. Place the foot nearest the wall directly in front of the other so that your feet form a straight line.
- Move your weight onto your front foot. Bring your back foot forward and place it directly in front of your other foot. Take 10 steps forward in this manner, turn slowly and take 10 steps back.
If you feel confident moving along in this manner, try moving away from the wall and stretching your arms out to the side as you move forward.
- Stand sideways on to a wall and rest one hand on the wall for support. Keep your other arm relaxed by your side. Lift your heels and place your body weight on the balls of your feet.
- Using the wall for support, walk 10 steps forward on your toes. Make sure your weight is over your big and second toes: don’t let your feet roll outward on to your little toes. Move back onto your flat feet, turn slowly, and take 10 steps back on your toes.
If you feel confident moving along in this manner, try moving away from the wall and lift your arms above your head as you move forward.