—And life—but most people don’t give it much thought until there is a problem. In fact, balance is the most overlooked element of fitness. We spend a lot of time focusing on strength, cardiovascular fitness, and flexibility—but what about balance?
You use your sense of balance every day whether you realize it or not—stepping into the shower, walking up and down stairs, riding a bike, hiking on a rocky trail, standing on a ladder to change a light bulb. Name just about any activity and balance is involved.
It’s easy to take balance for granted when we’re young, but as we age our ability to balance starts to change—and poor balance can lead to falls and injuries. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three adults ages 65 and older fall each year. Such falls can result in serious injuries to the brain, hips, legs, feet, and even internal organs.
Balance is controlled by an array of body systems that track sensory information from nerves and muscles. Your eyes, ears, muscles, brain, and nerves work together to keep you upright and steady on your feet. A strong core is also essential to good balance.
Balance changes as we age for a variety of reasons. Some older people become less fit and lose their ability to balance. Also, sensory receptors begin to fail in the elderly and this can impact balance.
Balance is important for everyone, not just the elderly. By staying physically active and keeping your nerves, muscles, and reflexes in good working order, you’ll improve your odds of maintaining good balance throughout your life. This can improve coordination and posture, make you feel more graceful—and of course, prevent falls and injuries.
When it comes to balance, you need to “use it or lose it”. The less active you are, the more your balance will deteriorate. Balance may come naturally to us as young kids, but as we age, it’s something we need to practice in order to maintain.
Start by assessing your ability to balance: stand on one foot with your eyes closed. How long can you do this without swaying, falling, setting your foot down, or opening your eyes? Aim for at least 15 seconds. The older we are, the less time we can spend balancing like this.
If balance is challenging for you, add it to your daily fitness routine. Here are several ways to improve your balance:
- Perform multi-planar movement: Balance requires using all three planes of movement. Most often, we use the saggital (forward and backward movement) plane, but it’s also important to use the frontal plane (side-to-side movement) and the transverse plane (rotational movement). Practice exercises that require you to use all three planes of movement. This helps you learn to stabilize.
- Change your base of support: Balance refers to your ability to maintain your center of gravity over your base of support (usually your legs). A wider base of support is more stable, whereas a narrow base of support provides a balance challenge. To improve balance, practice changing the base of support often. For example, you can take any upper body move (such as a bicep curl or shoulder press) and combine it with a variety of different support bases:
- Stand with legs wide
- Stand with feet together
- Stand on one leg
- Stand on an unstable surface (such as a BOSU ball or balance board)
- Mix movement and balance: It’s one thing to stand still and balance, but quite another to add the element of movement. Practice dynamic moves that require balance:
- Dynamic leg swings: Stand on one leg. Lift the other leg to 45 degrees in front of your body and then swing it behind you to the same height. That’s one rep. Repeat 10 times for each leg. You can also practice swinging the leg from side to side in front of your body.
- Knee-ups: Take a large step forward with your right leg and lift your left knee and hold for a breath. Put your left foot down and step back with your left leg, raise your right knee and hold another breath. That’s 1 rep. Alternatively, you can step up onto a box or bench to add more challenge.
- Penny pick-ups: Stand on one leg and imagine you’re bending over to pick up a penny. Reach for the floor with your fingertips and return all the way to standing. Repeat 10 times on each leg.
- Close your eyes: Vision is a critical component of balance and plays a huge role in proprioception (understanding where you are in space). Find a safe environment and practice standing with your eyes closed. Feel how your body sways without the help of your vision. Over time, play with other elements of balance with your eyes closed—stand with your feet closer together, stand on one leg, or try penny pick-ups.
photo: courtesy of Rev Fitness/Angela’s Gym, Sun Valley, Idaho