Balance is something we use every day: while standing, while walking, when getting up from a chair or bed, when bending over to pick something up, when gardening, sports or hiking, or when lifting an object (or person). Lack of balance equates to fear of falling in older folks; they often become less active, take shorter strides or avoid activities which may challenge their abilities. This is the opposite of ideal and will only lead to further loss of muscle mass, leg strength and functional capability.
So how can you improve your balance? Begin by simply standing on one leg while looking at a focal point. The toes of the other foot can touch the floor or you can stand near a chair or wall for safety. Concentrate on stabilizing your foot so your weight is distributed evenly from front to back and side to side on the sole of your foot. Control any rolling in or out of your ankle (pronating or supinating). Sturdy, supportive shoes will help at first, then you can progress to socks or barefoot. When it gets easier, try turning your head side to side, up and down, or turn your whole upper body. Another easy way to challenge yourself is to close one eye or both eyes. Standing on one foot can be practiced any time you’re standing at a sink or counter, standing in line, etc. Make sure you spend more time on the harder or weaker (less dominant) side.
Standing in a heel-toe stance is a good way to challenge your balance. Make sure the heel of the forward foot actually touches the toes of the rear foot and avoid turning the toes out (duck-footing). You can add any of the above progressions or even rocking back and forth on the heels and toes. Be sure to do both sides!
Heel-toe walking on a line is a great way to challenge your balance (think DUI walk). Don’t worry if it’s difficult at first. When you’re ready, you can do it backwards (yes, it’s possible) or forward with your eyes closed (be sure to have someone there to watch for objects in your way). Again, be sure the feet fully touch and try not to turn the toes out or veer too far off the line.
Over time you may be able to progress to “the drinking bird.” Stand on one foot with the leg straight and reach the fingers of the opposite hand toward your toes while extending the free leg behind you, until your upper body is horizontal or you feel a stretch in your hamstring (back of the thigh). You can bend your knee a little if you need to. Squeezing the glute muscles of the standing leg, return to fully vertical and bring the knee of the free leg up without touching the ground with your free foot if possible. Do 10 repetitions before switching to the other leg.
Other ways to improve balance
Work on turning and changing directions quickly while walking forward and backward. Set up obstacles to move around (and over) as though you were out in the world dealing with different situations. Move as quickly as you can while still being safe.
Sit to stand. Work on strengthening your quadricep (upper front thigh) muscles by sitting and standing repeatedly to gradually lower and squishier surfaces.
Lie down/stand up. Come down to the floor on your hands and knees, turn over onto your back, then roll back over to your hands and knees before bringing one leg through to the front and standing. Work up to not having to use an object or person to assist you. Use extra padding for your knees if you need it to get down on the floor. Be sure to alternate sides, as everyone has a preferred (easier) side, unless you have a medical reason (i.e. joint) not to do so.
Balance boards and disks of various types and sizes can be purchased in stores or online. These can be used for standing on one foot at a time, or both feet at the same time, depending on the type. You can work up to any of the above modifications to add challenge, such as closing your eyes or turning your head and shoulders, or even squatting on the balance board if it’s appropriate. BOSU boards are great for this, but there are also many good less expensive options. If in doubt, check with a personal trainer, fitness instructor or physical therapist.
Work on lengthening your stride length when you walk. Try taking longer strides, walk faster and add inclines. Anticipate obstacles or trip hazards as best you can, but the idea is to be ready for anything, and avoid falling.
Balance classes are available online or in person to help you continue to work on improving your balance and strengthen the muscles of the thighs, lower legs, ankles and feet, as well as proprioception (knowing where your body is in space, and feeling the ground beneath your feet.) Again, reach out to a fitness professional with any questions.
Enjoy your healthy, safe, balanced life!
Body Image Fitness, LLC