We tend to associate good balance with being able to walk a tightrope or stay on a moving horse, but our balance plays a part in every aspect of our life, right down to how we walk and stand. Preserving your balance as you get older can help you remain mobile, avoid falls, and stay independent.
The best way to improve and maintain your balance is to exercise it. Whether you have a workout routine or you’re just getting into fitness, it’s important to take your balance into account when working out. Make sure to include exercises that test your balance and improve your center of gravity.
However, caution is necessary, especially if you have poor balance. The objective of these exercises is to improve your stability, but you should take precautions and have a helper nearby in case you fall.
The Importance of Maintaining Balance
Before building your workout plan, it’s important to understand how your body balances itself, why seniors tend to have poor balance, and how maintaining stability can improve your life.
Understanding the vestibular system
Believe it or not, our sense of balance is not an innate skill. The vestibular system is responsible for helping us stay upright and maintain our balance. Located deep inside the ear, the vestibular system consists of five parts: three semicircular canals, the utricle, and the saccule.
Inside the semicircular canals are spaces called ampullae, which are lined with tiny hairs. When we move, the fluid in these canals moves with us, stimulating the hairs inside. This sends signals to the brain that informs us of which direction our head is moving.
Each semicircular canal is responsible for a different direction. One detects upwards/downwards movement, another responds when we’re turned sideways, and the last canal senses the tilting of our head.
The utricle and the saccule have similar purposes. These tiny organs are also lined with hairs, but instead of holding fluid, they are filled with otoliths, or “ear rocks”. This might sound ridiculous at first, but whenever your body is exposed to acceleration, these crystals move over the hairs and notify the brain.
The effects of aging on balance
Like all systems in the body, aging can have a profound impact on our vestibular system. Vestibular dysfunction can lead to many symptoms common in seniors, including dizziness, poor balance, and falls.
However, it can be difficult to quantify the effects of aging on the vestibular system, since many other factors are responsible for balance and equilibrium. Issues with balance are rarely caused solely by vestibular decline, especially among the elderly.
In other words, our vestibular system is responsible for much of our balance, but maintaining your balance means maintaining your body, spatial awareness, and center of gravity. This can be done using exercises that engage every part of your balance.
Like language fluency and other skills, our balance tends to deteriorate when it goes unused. This is why it’s important to perform exercises on a regular basis. Otherwise, you might encounter a situation where your sense of balance is not sharp enough to prevent an accident.
The benefits of balance exercises
When you perform balance exercises, you’re doing more than sharpening your senses. You’re strengthening your body and establishing a stable center of gravity.
Many of us take our balance for granted, and call ourselves clumsy when we trip, stumble, or fall. However, a lack of balance is not a permanent flaw; there are many ways that balance exercises can help you become more steady on your feet. By exercising your sense of balance, you can:
- Help prevent falls and accidents
- Improve how you walk, stand, and complete tasks
- Reduce reliance on canes and walkers
- Gain independence and confidence
The Best Balance Exercises for Seniors
Before beginning any balance routine, it’s important to have a sturdy chair on hand. This will provide support if you feel unsteady. If you have poor balance, make sure another person is present just in case you feel dizzy or fall over.
You can perform these exercises on carpet, tile, or hardwood floors — just make sure you’re wearing proper footwear. Doing these exercises barefoot can strengthen the muscles in your feet, but shoes with a no-slip sole might provide more stability and grip. Do not perform these exercises while wearing slippers or socks on hard floors.
This is a simple exercise that every balance routine should include.
- Stand with your feet apart.
- Extend your arms and lift one foot in front of you.
- Hold this position.
- Repeat with the other foot.
Leg balances are excellent because they can be scaled according to your needs. To make this exercise easier, you can hold onto your chair or walker. To make it harder, you can let go of your supports, hold your foot up longer, and even close your eyes.
Another simple, effective exercise. This one requires moving, so make sure your support is always within reach.
- While standing in place, carefully put one foot in front of the other. Make sure your toe touches the heel of your other foot.
- Take another step, touching your toe to your heel. Hold this position.
- Repeat for a few more steps, holding the position each time.
Similar to leg balances, you can adjust the difficulty of this exercise by adding or taking away supports. Don’t walk too quickly; half of this exercise is learning to stay balanced while holding an imbalanced position!
This exercise is great for improving your balance. It’s best to do this one in front of a wall, so you can reach out and touch it if you need support.
- Stand in place with your feet apart.
- Cross one foot over the other, until your legs are twisted. The closer your feet are, the better.
- Hold this position.
- Carefully cross your other foot back over, untwisting your legs.
- Keep crossing and uncrossing your feet. You should be moving horizontally.
- Repeat in the opposite direction, until you’re back where you started.
Grapevines are great for your balance because they require you to shift your weight and move in odd ways.
If you’re easily bored or distracted while exercising, here is a quick 10-minute routine that you can follow along. Once the video is over, you’re all finished!
Just because you have poor balance or muscle weakness doesn’t mean balance exercises are pointless. In fact, they’re twice as important. These gentle alternatives will allow you to strengthen your muscles and improve your center of gravity without endangering yourself.
All of these exercises can be done with a walker, so you can do them anytime, anywhere. You can also adjust the exercises above so they can be done with your walker.
Flamingo stands are easy, simple, and exercise your legs as well as your balance.
- Stand in place with your walker in front of you.
- Lift your knee as high as you can and hold that position.
- If you feel steady enough, let go of your walker and try to maintain your balance.
- Lower your leg and repeat with the other knee.
You can increase the difficulty of flamingo stands by holding the position longer, letting go of your walker, closing your eyes, and lifting and lowering your knee faster.
Like the name implies, this exercise involves going up onto your tip-toes. Like flamingo stands, this exercises your feet, calves, and balance.
- Stand with your walker in front of you.
- Raise your heels and balance on the balls of your feet.
- Hold this position.
- If you can, let go of your walker and try to balance on your tip-toes.
- Lower your heels and repeat.
You can make this exercise harder by rocking back onto your heels after doing your tip-toe. Make sure a wall or helper is behind you in case you fall backwards.
If you’re looking for a visual reference for these walker exercises, here’s a helpful tutorial.