Balance training is a type of exercise that is vital for the physical health of older adults. Incorporating balance into an exercise routine is particularly important for those with osteopenia or osteoporosis. This is because it helps decrease the risk of falls and potential fractures.
Why balance training is important
As we age, there is a decline in how our bodies sense the world around us. This decline can lead to poor balance, dramatically increasing the risk of falling. According to a recent study, it is estimated that 13% of adults self-report imbalance from ages 65 to 69, rising to 46% in those aged 85 and older (Osoba, 2019).
Balance training improves your ability to sense where it is in space, which can help prevent falls. This is important for older adults, specifically those with fragile bones, because it can lower one’s fracture risk. Improved balance also leads to improved quality of life by allowing older adults to maintain their independence for longer.
What does good balance entail?
To have good balance, multiple systems and sensors within the body need to work together (Osoba, 2019). Elements of good balance include:
- Muscle strength: The strength of the core muscles and lower body muscles (ankles, calves, quadriceps, and glutes) play a large role in balance. They help you maintain an upright posture on both even and uneven surfaces, along with helping perform daily activities such as getting up and down stairs.
- Vision: Seeing and avoiding obstacles or sudden changes in your surroundings will help prevent falls. Having good vision will also help give information to the brain about one’s location in space.
- Proprioception: This is your body’s internal sense of where it is in space. Even with your eyes closed, your body should know if it is upright or lying down, or on an incline or a decline (Akay, 2021).
- Vestibular: Your vestibular system consists of fluid-filled canals in your inner ear. These canals send messages to your brain to let you know how fast and in which direction your body moves. The workings of this system declines with age (Akay, 2021).
- Sensation: The tactile (touch) sensation of your feet is essential for good balance. If you cannot feel your feet on the ground, that can impact how you stand and move on them, putting you at risk of losing your balance or falling.
Static vs dynamic balance
Good balance consists of good static balance and good dynamic balance. Static balance is the ability to hold yourself upright in one place, whether standing independently or with perturbations. An example of static balance is the ability to stand in your kitchen with your dog hopping up on your legs, begging for food.
Dynamic balance is the ability to stay upright and in control while moving. An example of dynamic balance is walking on a sidewalk and getting bumped by a stranger passing by quickly.
Working on static and dynamic balance will improve balance and help with fall prevention.
Why standing balance exercises?
The focus of this article will be on balance exercises in the standing position. This is because if you’re going to fall, it’s typically from a standing position. For this reason, like any athlete training for their specific sport, it’s important to practice challenging your body in the position and situation you want to improve or strengthen.
When attempting the exercises below, or any balance exercises for that matter, be sure to have something stable to hold on to if needed, such as a sturdy chair or a countertop. If you feel unsafe, you are at high risk for a fracture, or you recently experienced a fall, you may need to begin your balance training with a physical therapist. A physical therapist can supervise and guard you during exercises to avoid a potential fall.
Standing balance training exercises
Before starting a new exercise program, it is best to clear your plan with your healthcare provider. You may want to support balance-specific exercises with certain strengthening exercises that target some of the muscles you’ll need to help with standing balance, such as the muscles of the hip, core, ankles and legs. Having a foundation of good strength and posture is always beneficial for improving balance.
When you’re ready to begin your balance exercise program, You do not need any equipment. These are all body weight, balance exercises. However, once you master them, you may want to use resistance bands, weights or a balance mat to make them more challenging.
This exercise shifts your center of gravity forward and backward, challenging your legs, ankles and core to maintain an upright position.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Slowly shift your weight forward by leaning your whole body towards your toes. Move like the leaning tower of Pisa (do not hinge at your hips as if you were leaning to look over a cliff).
- You will feel your weight shift into your toes.
- Stop before you feel like you may step forward or fall.
- Then, lean your body back (but do not bend your back) until you feel your weight shift back into your heels.
- Stop before you feel like you may step backward or fall.
- Do this 10-15 times.
Rock the boat
This exercise challenges your balance by continuously shifting your center of gravity. It also strengthens the muscles in your hips.
- Start with your feet hip-width apart.
- Maintain an upright trunk as you kick your right leg out to the right.
- Bring it back to the center.
- Repeat the same on the other side by kicking your left leg out to the left.
- Do this 20 times (10 with each leg).
Heel-toe walk is also known as a tightrope walk. It challenges your balance by narrowing your base of support while walking.
- Start by standing normally.
- Then place your right foot directly in front of your left foot, touching the heel of your right foot to the toe of your left foot.
- Continue to walk forward in a straight line by stepping one foot directly in front of the other, like you're walking on a tightrope.
Single leg balance
Single leg balance challenges your static balance by having you balance on one leg at a time.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Slowly lift one leg so that you are balancing on your opposite leg.
- Keep your gaze on a point ahead of you.
- Stand tall as you hold the position, lengthening through your standing leg.
- If needed, reach your arms to the sides to help maintain your balance.
- Hold this position for as long as possible, working up to a 1-minute hold
Tai chi exercises, such as tiger balancing on front paws, can also provide you with new and interesting ways to challenge your single leg balance while incorporating visualizations and mindfulness.
This exercise improves your balance by working on lateral movements while strengthening the glute muscles.
- Start by standing with your feet hip-width apart and feet pointing forward.
- Step to the right side, keeping your upper body straight.
- Continue to step to the right for 10-15 repetitions, or as far as space allows.
- Repeat this for the same amount of repetitions to the left side.
How to maximize your results
You can practice these exercises regularly to improve balance. However, as mentioned earlier, you should also perform strength training if you want to improve your balance. Exercises such as squats and heel raises can improve your lower body strength, which can help improve balance, as well.
Working on dynamic balance, such as going up and down stairs or moving through an obstacle course, is also helpful but may be best done with a physical therapist who can spot you as you challenge yourself. Different forms of physical activity, such as tai chi, can provide other low-impact ways to build strength and improve balance.
If you’re not sure where to start, Wellen’s exercise program could be the answer. Each of Wellen's workouts consists of balance, strength and posture exercises. Our program is backed by science and reviewed by experts so you don’t have to do any planning – an effective workout program designed for you is ready to go when you are.