Balance training is an often-overlooked but essential part of any rehabilitation or fitness program and it becomes even more important as we age. We tend to take our balance for granted when we are younger, but as we age our ability to balance effectively deteriorates, and tasks that were once easy to perform can become more challenging. Our ability to balance is essential for performing a range of basic everyday tasks, including walking, getting out of a chair and even just standing still. When our balance is impaired, our risk of falling and sustaining fall-related injuries increases.
This is where balance training can help. When working on balance, there are two main areas we focus on strengthening: the legs including the glutes, hamstrings and ankles; and the core. These muscle groups are responsible for keeping you upright – pretty important when it comes to balance!
So what actually is balance? Balance refers to our ability to control and maintain equilibrium within the body, whether we are still or moving. It is governed by the vestibular apparatus within the inner ear, which works in harmony with the brain to provide us with our sense of balance. The feedback we receive from our body and its surroundings allows the VA and brain to make adjustments in order to maintain our balance. When we are still and have a stable base of support, it’s relatively easy to stay balanced. When we move and change our center of gravity in relation to our base of support, that is when our sense of balance can be tested.
Fortunately, there are a variety of exercises you can do to improve your balance, and most can be done at home without any special equipment. Remember, keep it simple to start and only progress once you are ready. Use props such as a wall or chair for assistance if needed, and always make sure you are on a stable, non-slippery surface when doing your exercises. You can always regress an exercise depending on what your body feels like on the day.
Start with some static holds: using a wall or chair for assistance, stand on one leg and balance for thirty seconds. Change sides and repeat at least twice on each leg. Don’t forget to keep your core switched on when you are holding, and especially as you change sides. Once you are confident and have established your balance, challenge yourself by taking your hand off the chair or wall. If you want extra challenge, try closing your eyes and staying balanced. Remember you can always use the chair or wall again if you need it – You may be surprised at how much more challenging it is to stay balanced without your vision!
After you have mastered the static hold, it’s time to add some movement into your balance work. Dynamic balance exercises are more functional than static exercises, meaning they compliment and improve the everyday activities you do that require balance – walking, bending, reaching etc. These exercises also begin to really challenge your core stability and control. Using the wall or a chair for assistance if you need it, start by lifting both the heels and rising up onto the toes – staying stable through the legs and trunk – and then slowly lowering the heels back down. Repeat ten times. To increase the challenge, try single-legged calf raises – lifting and lowering the heel of one leg at a time. For some extra variety, try prancing the feet by lifting one heel at a time and bending the opposite knee, still keeping the movement slow and controlled as you lift and lower your heels. Again, once you are confident with this exercise you can take away the assistance, and even try closing your eyes while calf-raising.
Though age plays a large role in our ability to balance, students of all ages will benefit from balance exercises. If you’ve ever had an off-day and suddenly found yourself struggling to perform activities that you usually breeze through – maybe you’re even tripping over or stumbling when you walk – then some simple at-home balance exercises can help you get back on track and finding your center again.
Floyd, R. T. (2012). Manual of Structural Kinesiology. 18th ed.