Every morning we wake up and start the day, rarely thinking about our balance. While it’s not something we tend to focus on, balance does play an important role in our daily activities in addition to when we are playing sports or exercising.
How does balance work, exactly? It’s all about connections. Inside our ear is a balance center called the vestibular system. This system detects if we are lying down, standing, walking, etc. The vestibular system is connected to the part of the brain that helps control our balance. Together they communicate (at lightening speed) to determine if/when the body needs to take corrective action so we do not lose our balance and/or fall.
As we age and become less active, a number of factors can impact our balance. Cells in our vestibular system die off and affect how accurately we can detect if we are falling off balance, which in turn makes it harder for the brain to respond in a timely fashion. Our vision allows us to look at a focal point and determine depth, distance, etc. As our vision gets weaker with age, this also contributes to a decline in balance. We also lose muscle mass, strength, reflexes, and coordination as we age. If you lose your balance, this loss of muscle mass and strength will slow your reaction time/reflexes to correct your balance. All of this can lead to falling and injuring ourselves.
I have seen great improvements in balance, coordination, strength, and reflexes when implementing these three simple exercises* outlined below. Not only do they help with daily activities and exercise routines, implementing them also translates to better balance and performance when playing sports like golf, basketball, softball, and other activities.
- Calf Raises with Both Feet – Start by standing up straight with your feet shoulder width apart and parallel. (To help maintain your balance, start with a chair nearby that you can hold). Your knees should be slightly bent, with equal weight distributed on both feet. Position your head over your shoulders, shoulders over your waist, and keep your back straight. Contract all your muscles throughout your body to minimize rocking forward or backwards. Then, push up equally through the front of your feet to lift both heels off the floor. At the top of the movement, hold your body for a brief moment and don’t allow your feet or heels to rotate out to the side. Lower both heels back down to the floor. Your breath should lead this motion, exhale during the upward motion and inhale on the downward motion. Repeat this movement 10 times (10 reps), take a break for 1 minute and do another 10 reps. Each block of 10 reps is considered a set. To begin you will be completing two sets (20 reps total). As you get stronger you can increase this to 15 reps and 3 sets.
- Standing Side Leg Lift –Start by standing up straight with your feet together. Distribute your weight equally on both feet. To help maintain your balance, start with a chair nearby that you can hold. (As you get more comfortable with the movement you can take your hands off the chair to challenge you more, but keep it nearby in case you lose your balance). Position your head over your shoulders, shoulders over your waist and keep your back straight. Contract all your muscles throughout your body to minimize rocking. Then, slowly lift your right leg straight out to the side about 10 inches, hovering just above the floor. Hold it out for a count of 2 and then return it to the starting position. Once again, your breath leads the motion, exhale during the outward motion and inhale on the inward motion. Repeat this movement 10 times (10 reps), take a break for 1 minute and do another 10 reps. To begin you will be completing two sets (20 reps total). You will now do the same thing with your left leg. Each block of 10 reps is considered a set. As you get stronger, you can increase this to 15 reps and 3 sets. If you want to challenge yourself further, you can hold your leg out for a count of 6 instead of 2 or, for a further challenge, try it with your eyes closed as vision plays an important role with our balance. You will be surprised how much more difficult this movement is with your eyes closed.
- Standing Foot Raise – Stand up straight with your feet together, positioning your head over your shoulders, shoulders over your waist, and keep your back straight. Contract all of the muscles throughout your body to minimize rocking. Look at an object about 5 feet away. With your leg straight, raise your right foot 6 inches off the ground and hold it there for 30 seconds. Once you can do this, start over and increase the challenge: this time, with your feet starting on the ground, look at an object 25 feet away from you and then begin the foot raise. Remember, the farther the focal point the more difficult it is for you to balance because it takes longer for your vision to notice a wobble so that your vestibular system and brain can respond to an imbalance. Raise your foot 6 inches off the ground and hold it there for 30 seconds. Once you can do this, up the challenge by closing your eyes and raising your foot 6 inches off the ground, holding for 30 seconds. You will find this to be difficult, but the more you do it, the better your balance will become.
In addition to those three exercises, other activities such as Tai Chi, Yoga, and Pilates are also great for improving your balance because they are slow movements that incorporate the core and use one leg stances. Not only will improving your balance help prevent falls and injuries, but it will also strengthen your core, reduce back pain, improve posture, and coordination, allowing you to be more active with your family.
* Please consult with your doctor before trying this or other activities.