Exercise to Improve Balance

(RxWiki News) Learn how to improve balance to reduce your risk of falls.

We all need balance in our lives. Literally. But having good balance is more complex than you may realize. It involves the integration of various sensory and motor systems, including:

  • Vision (to perceive direction and motion)
  • The vestibular system in the inner ear (which monitors motion and provides orientation clues, such as which way is up)
  • Proprioception (the ability to sense where your body is in space)
  • Good muscle strength and reaction time (to stay steady)

If any of these systems are not functioning properly, you can lose your balance. In fact, about one in three people over 65 (not living in nursing homes) fall at least once a year. And 10% to 15% of these falls result in serious injury.

  • Older people often have poor balance due to:
    • Loss of muscle strength and joint flexibility
    • Reduced vision and reaction time
  • And the risk of inner ear dysfunction, which can throw you off balance, increases with age.
  • The following can interfere with balance, at any age:
    • Lack of exercise
    • Alcohol
    • Obesity
    • Neuropathy (nerve damage) in the lower legs
    • Certain drugs or medical conditions

From tai chi to cobblestones

Exercise—such as brisk walking, running, and strength training—helps improve balance. Any activity that increases strength, especially in your lower limbs, as well as agility, is worthwhile. Even golf, aquatic exercise, and interactive dance video games have been shown to help.

In particular, you may want to try tai chi.

  • Studies have documented its ability to improve balance and decrease falls in both healthy and ill people.
  • Originally a Chinese martial art, this ancient practice involves slow, balanced, low-impact movements done in sequences.
  • It builds confidence, coordination, muscle strength, and all-around fitness. Classes are often available at health clubs, colleges, and adult education centers.

Below are some other good things you can do for your balance. The equipment needed is available at sporting-goods stores or online; gyms and physical therapy offices may also sell it.

Before you start

If you have serious balance problems, it’s a good idea to begin with a personal trainer at a gym or a physical therapist. At home, be sure to have someone “spot” you or at least have something to hold onto so you don’t fall.

  • Balance on a board.
    • Also called wobble or rocker boards, balance boards are wooden or plastic devices that sit on a short base that acts as a fulcrum.
    • By shifting your weight from side to side or front to back, you try to balance without rocking too much. For more of a challenge, do it with your eyes closed.
  • Have a ball.
    • Made of vinyl and filled with air, a large exercise ball (also called a stability ball or physioball) is another handy helper for improving balance.
    • At home, be sure you have plenty of room so you don’t tumble onto a piece of furniture.
    • The balls come in different sizes based on your height.
  • Walk on cobblestones.
    • Chinese tradition holds that walking on uneven paths is good for balance.
    • A study several years ago at the Oregon Research Institute gave support to the practice.
    • It found that healthy but sedentary older adults significantly improved their balance by walking on special cobblestone mats.
    • Aim for half an hour of cobblestone walking two or three times a week, in addition to regular walking and strengthening exercise.
    • If you have no cobblestone paths in your neighborhood, you can buy long walking mats like those used in the study.
  • Try a mini-trampoline.
    • Training on a mini-trampoline may increase balance.
    • One study found older people were better able to regain their footing in a forward fall experiment—an ability that can help prevent a serious injury in real life.
    • If you are very unsteady on your feet, though, this may not be a good choice.
    • Some mini-trampolines have handrails.

Four simple steps to better balance

Here are some balance exercises you can do at home that need no special training or equipment. Stand near something you can grab for support if needed, or do them with a partner.

  • Test your balance by seeing how long you can stand on one foot with your eyes closed. Most people over 40 can’t go past 15 seconds. Even if you can, try to improve your time.
  • Without holding onto anything, rise up on your toes 10 times. Repeat with eyes shut.
  • Stand on one leg, bending the other knee slightly, for 10 to 15 seconds; switch legs; repeat 10 times. Then go again with your eyes closed.
  • Walk a straight line, placing the heel of one foot directly in front of the toes of the other foot.

Watch this American Council on Exercise (ACE) video demonstrating balance training exercises.

Bottom line

If you are over 60, ask your doctor to check your sense of balance. There are many ways to improve your balance and thus reduce the risk of falls. Find what you like but also mix it up. Another thing to consider for fall prevention is a vitamin D supplement. Studies suggest that adequate vitamin D reduces the risk of falls by increasing muscle strength in the legs. The recommended daily intake is 600 IU up to age 70 and 800 IU for those older, though people who are deficient may need higher doses.