Tips for Improving Your Balance
Moving Toward Health
Theresa Oswald, MD
May 18, 2020
As we age our balance declines if it is not challenged, so it is important to make balance training a part of our wellness routine. Working to improve our balance has numerous benefits, including injury prevention, refined posture, improved coordination, increased sense of body awareness in space, and reduced risk of falling. Balance issues can especially impair mobility and activity in people with Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and osteoporosis. When you are walking and you trip or stumble without falling, that is your balancing ability at work, protecting and supporting you.
Like any movement program, balance activities need to be fun and relevant to make them sustainable. The best way to maintain our health and mobility is to move naturally throughout the day, including movement that strengthens our heart, strengthens our muscles, and improves balance. I find the best types of movement, especially for improving balance, are those that incorporate breath and body awareness into the movement—activities such as dance, tai chi, and yoga.
How do we get started on improving our balance safely? Whenever we are standing on one leg, our body is helping us maintain our upright posture by utilizing our balance system. Practicing standing on one leg to challenge your balance can be added to many things you are already doing throughout your day. You can do it:
- While brushing your teeth, with the bathroom countertop for support
- While washing your dishes, with the kitchen counter for balance
- While waiting in line at the grocery store, with the shopping cart available to assist you as needed
With these activities, you are standing on one leg and working on balance safely because a supportive surface is nearby to steady you, if you momentarily lose your balance. You can work on standing on one leg for 30–60 seconds without holding on to the supportive surface, but it is there in case you need it. Then switch to the other leg.
Balance poses like the ones taught in yoga can bring about a sense of inner balance and resiliency that allows us to move through our day with more ease and confidence. You can start with the tree pose or just holding your foot off the floor in front of you with your hip and knee flexed. You can progress to more traditional yoga poses with the support of a chair or the wall, such as the half-moon balance pose or warrior 3.
Motion and Non-Visual Balance Cues
When you are feeling comfortable standing on one foot without the support of the wall or a chair, you can take your balance skills out for a spin. An activity such as dancing can help with balance and coordination while helping your mind and memory. This part of balance is called proprioception. Proprioception is the medical term for a coordinated awareness of our body’s position, motion, and equilibrium that does not depend on vision. One study comparing dancers to non-dancers showed that dancers rely upon proprioceptive cues more than visual cues to maintain their balance.
Tai chi also helps strengthen proprioception. A popular balance therapy with its roots in traditional Chinese medicine, tai chi, much like yoga, is a mind-body movement system that coordinates gentle movements with the breath. This combination of slow, coordinated movements and deep breathing not only works to balance the body’s vital energy, or chi, it also helps healthy older people reduce their risk of falls: the exercises of tai chi alternate between slow turning and weight shifting, which dynamically challenges balance by replicating the balance-centered movements regularly used throughout an active day.
There are also other ways to improve the proprioception component of balance, which build on the standing-on-one-leg exercises suggested above:
- You can try standing on one leg on a thick carpet or a foam mat, which are more challenging to balance on than a firm surface. But always keep support close by in case your balance is off.
- Going a step further, to strengthen proprioceptive cues and rely less on visual cues to maintain your stability, you could try standing on one leg on a firm surface for 30 seconds with your eyes closed, but near a stable support, in case you need it. As you become more comfortable with standing on one leg with your eyes closed you are optimizing the proprioceptive balance system in your body. Then when you walk into a dark room or a low-lit environment your non-visual, proprioceptive balance system will operate at its optimal level.
Improving Muscle Strength
Muscle strength is important for balance. Have you ever noticed when trying to do a balance pose that one leg is easier to balance on than the other? This could be from subtle differences in strength between one leg and the other leg. Doing exercises to strengthen the hips and thighs, as well as the knees and ankles, will give you greater stability in single-leg standing on both sides. You can do this by:
- Getting up from a chair and sitting back down without using your hands
- Marching in place
- Walking backward and sideways
- Stepping on and off a step stool
- Doing heel and toe rises
Developing core muscle strength is also important. One great way of working on core strength is by doing an agni sara variation daily. Many of these movements can be found in the book Exercises for Joints & Glands by Swami Rama.
Seated Activities on the Floor
Spending some time each day doing activities while seated on the floor helps the muscles needed to get onto the floor and back up maintain their strength, so that you can get down and up safely. In cultures where people sit on the floor regularly, such as many Asian cultures, there is greater mobility and improved balance into later life. In the book The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, Dan Buettner notes that Okinawans, who have very little furniture, eat meals and relax while sitting on mats on the floor. Getting down on and up off the floor several dozen times a day improves lower body strength and balance, which protects them against falls.
The fear of falling can itself be a factor contributing to falls. If you are confident in your ability to get up off the floor should you happen to fall, the fear factor is diminished. You won’t be stranded on the floor with no way to get up.
Balance training helps us cultivate a level of balance that allows us to be more active in a variety of ways. Being active and getting out in the community encourages connection with others, thus reducing the sense of loneliness and isolation that can occur in our high-tech but low-face-to-face-interaction culture.
In addition to the forms of balance training described above, we also want to balance our mental space. A wonderful form of mindfulness movement is forest bathing. Forest bathing is the term developed in Japan for spending time in nature to get the benefits of fresh air, health-promoting chemicals released into the air from trees, time unplugged from technology, and gentle, purposeful movement. Learn more about the health benefits of forest bathing in a subsequent post.
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