You’re Going to Need to Work on Your Balance

It's important, especially as we age, to work on our balancing skills. Here's how to get started

At first glance, you might not see the point of practicing balance. For other types of exercise, the benefits are more obvious: We know that lifting weights is great for bone density, yoga increases mindfulness and aerobic exercises are ideal for heart health. Functionally, we use strength to lift and carry groceries or little children, mindfulness reduces stress and aerobic exercise helps us catch the bus on those mornings when we wake up just a tad too late. But it’s not often (outside of, say, yoga class) that we need to balance on one foot. Sure, maybe to put on a sock—but we could just sit down to do that, right?

In reality, balance affects so much of our daily movement. “Balance is needed to complete functional tasks and activities of everyday living, like walking, cleaning, reaching—all the things that give you independence,” says Alice Li, a physiotherapist at Yellow Gazebo, a wellness clinic in Toronto. At its most basic definition, balance means moving or remaining still without losing control or falling. “It’s all about maintaining control of our body,” Li says. “From simply going outside for a walk to doing something more complex like running a race, balance is important for a full spectrum of activities.”

Three major systems in our body work together to create balance. The visual system allows us to see if we are tilting. The vestibular system, which is housed in the inner ear, sends our brain information about the motion of our head in relation to our surroundings. Proprioception is our awareness of where our body is in space, for example, during movement and actions. “All of those components work together to keep us upright,” says Li.

Maybe you’ve noticed that, while you used to glide down the stairs with ease, lately you have to hold the handrail or check your footing. “Like many areas in the body, our ability to maintain balance weakens over time,” explains Li. This is why older adults are particularly susceptible to falls. Practicing balance is key if you want to avoid slips and trips that could lead to serious injury. Such injuries, particularly those in the lower body (like a twisted ankle) can also further affect your balance, so it’s important to do rehab that incorporates balance exercises after an injury.

Using a tool like a Bosu ball (a balance ball that is flat on one side) is a great way to hone your balance skills. It provides you with an unstable surface to stand on, which forces you to find and maintain your centre of gravity while performing different exercises. It also helps you train your body (through the vestibular system and proprioception) to keep itself upright even in unsteady circumstances. For safety, Li suggests clearing a wide floor area and keeping a wall or sturdy piece of furniture nearby—just in case of tumbles. And don’t forget to always use your Bosu ball with the flat side down on the ground and the rounded side facing up.

If you’re new to using a Bosu ball, a good place to start is to simply stand on it. Stand with two feet on the rounded side, keeping a soft bend in the knees. Increase the difficulty by shifting your weight onto your toes and heels and side to side. “[It seems] super easy, but the unsteady nature of the ball creates a great challenge,” Li says. From there, you can up the ante by standing on one foot, then the other, or by shifting your weight farther back on your heels or forward onto your toes.

Another balance-perfecting exercise you can try is to maintain your stance while a partner pushes you (lightly!). This will help you practice your reactionary balance. “You need reactionary balance when, for example, you encounter a sheet of ice,” explains Li. You could also do this while tossing a ball with your kids, playing fetch with your dog or simply bouncing a ball off a wall—anything that has you reacting and staying upright while standing on the uneven surface.

If you’re a balance pro, try doing lunges. Start by standing facing the Bosu ball. Then, take one foot forward, planting it on the centre of the rounded part. Move into a lunging position (bending both knees toward a 90-degree angle), then push off with your front leg and return backward to a standing position. Carefully step forward onto the ball as you go straight into your lunge and then—this is the hardest part—step back with control. Do this on each side a few times, maintaining control and fluid motion throughout. “Be very cautious of that front knee, since there are many moving components to this exercise and the Bosu ball is unstable,” says Li.

Not sure how steady you are? A very simple way to test your balance is to simply stand on one foot. Li recommends clearing the area around you and standing close to a wall or a sturdy piece of furniture you can grab onto in case you do go off kilter. Then, lift one foot off the ground and aim to stand in that position for at least 30 seconds without falling, repositioning or flailing your limbs about. If you can’t last for 30 seconds or the action is not controlled, you likely need to focus on practicing balance. If you can make it 30 seconds with control, it’s safe to say your balance is in good shape. Sometimes, we can balance on one side but not the other (due to various factors that include muscular imbalances and injury), so that will tell you which side you need to focus on.

If you already have a regular exercise routine, that’s a great start. It’s true that general exercise increases balance. A 2019 review of the impacts of physical activity on balance and fall prevention in seniors published in the journal Medicine described one study that followed two groups—one that did 32 weeks of resistance training and another that did 32 weeks of aerobics. At the end of the study, the groups experienced an increase in the ability to balance on one foot by 25 and 31 percent, respectively.

“Good balance can help with confidence overall, and then you’re more likely to participate in activities and be more active,” says Li. “It’s a great cycle.”

Next: How to Stretch Your Hips After Sitting for a While

Originally Published in Best Health Canada