Do you have a good sense of balance or could it use a little work? And why is good balance so important? A lack of strong balance skills is a leading cause of falls, especially in people over the age of 60. That’s because balance and proprioception degrade with age due to multiple factors related to the aging process. One of the most serious risks of having poor balance is a fractured hip. Unfortunately, one in five people who sustain a hip fracture die within a year of the injury.
Why is balance such an issue? Staying upright is more complicated than you think! Being balanced requires input from your eyes, your vestibular system (including portions of your brain & inner ear) as well as healthy peripheral nerves to relay information. Your muscles also need to be strong and your joints flexible.
Testing Your Sense of Balance
How do you know if your sense of balance is okay or could use some work? If you fall a lot for no apparent reason, you might assume your balance is off. But, there are simple tests that can tell you whether balance is a problem for you.
Here’s one to try. Stand next to a sturdy object, like a door, in case you need it for support. Then, balance on one leg as long as possible. Now, try it with your eyes closed. Much harder, isn’t it? In fact, most people over the age of 40 can’t do hold this position with their eyes closed for longer than 15 seconds without falling around or toppling over.
When you close your eyes, you lose one of the components that help you stay balanced – your vision. You then become more dependent on your vestibular system to help you stay upright. But, the vestibular system becomes less efficient at doing this as we age. The ability to balance in the absence of visual input is called proprioception. Like you lose balance skills as you age, proprioception skills also degrade.
When you’re in your twenties and thirties, you might be able to close your eyes and stand on one leg for 25 to 30 seconds. But, the average time drops to around 9 or 10 seconds by age 50 and is as low as 4 or 5 seconds once a person reaches their 60’s and 70’s. That should give you some idea of where you should be in terms of ability to balance.
Can You Really Improve Your Balance Abilities?
We know balance skills decline with age and this is a factor that increases the risk of falling. But, can you improve your sense of balance? Yes! A meta-analysis of 4,305 people aged 60 and older found that doing exercises that challenge balance is linked with a reduction in the incidence of falls and fewer injuries when falls occur.
How should you start to improve your balance? There are gadgets, like wobble boards that you can use, but there’s also a lot you can do during your daily weight training routine to enhance your balance skills. First, work on strengthening your core. It’s harder to do any type of balance exercise when you don’t have adequate core strength. Some exercises that strengthen your core will help improve your balance skills as well. For example, two plank variations – the elevated single-leg side plank and the elevated single-leg prone plank are both excellent exercises for strengthening the core while adding a balance challenge.
Here’s another option. An inexpensive piece of equipment, the Bosu balance trainer, is an effective tool for improving balance. You’ve probably seen them – they have a flat base and a dome-like surface that creates an unstable platform when you exercise. To work on your balance skills, do squats while standing on the dome. Then work on your upper body by turning the trainer over and placing the flat side up. Place one hand on each side of the flat base and belt out a set of push-ups. You can also add a balance challenge by doing abdominal exercises on a stability ball.
Add a Balance Challenge When You Train with Weights
The simplest way to work on balance when you lift weights is to do single-leg squats and deadlifts. They’re more challenging, but we need that extra challenge to enhance our sense of balance, so we can avoid future injury. Be sure to do both sides! Start by using no weights and then slowly increase the weight you use once you feel comfortable on one leg. Lunges are an exercise that naturally tests your balance skills.
Work on Dynamic Balance Too
Static balance is the ability to stay in place when your body isn’t actively moving. But, there’s also dynamic balance – the capacity to keep in equilibrium when your body is moving. This type of balance is especially important if you play sports. One legged squats and deadlifts help to improve dynamic balance as you’re balancing while your body is in motion. Here’s an exercise that will improve your ability to balance dynamically. Stand with both feet together. Now, take one leg and extend it out in front of you as you balance on the other leg. Then, do the same thing but extend the leg behind you. Finally, extend your leg out to the side while balancing on the other foot. Then, switch sides and repeat. If you do this consistently, your performance should improve and so will your ability to balance dynamically.
Work on Your Balance Skills Everywhere
Don’t just work on improving your balance when you train, do it when you’re standing in line at the supermarket. Lift one leg up and try to balance as long as you can. Be discreet and no one will notice! Do the same when you’re washing dishes at the sink. How about whipping out a set of one-legged squats in the kitchen?
The Bottom Line
Being strong and having good endurance is important – but so is having the ability to stay upright and balanced when you carry out your daily activities and play sports. So, work on developing your balance skills – you won’t regret it!
SaveOurBones.com. “How’s Your Balance? Take This 30-Second Test to Find Out”
Harvard Publishing. “The Benefits of Balance Training”
Geriatr Orthop Surg Rehabil. 2010 Sep; 1(1): 6–14.