Balance is the ability to hold yourself steady, centered and upright while resisting the downward pull of gravity. When you have good balance, your body is able to compensate for forces that throw you out of equilibrium so you don’t take a tumble and fall to the ground. Unfortunately, you lose some of this ability with age. This increases the risk of falls and injuries in everyday life and when you play sports. That’s why balance work is especially important as you age.
How Do We Stay Balanced?
Maintaining good balance involves input from several systems including your visual system, sense of proprioception and the vestibular system that lies in your inner ear. Your body takes cues from the environment as to the location of your body in space and constantly makes adjustments that keep you upright and in equilibrium. You have sensors in your limbs that send feedback to your brain about your orientation in space so your brain can fine-tune muscle movement and the positioning of your joints to help you stay upright. As you age, it’s important to add balance challenges to your workout to help reinforce the pathways that make balance possible. Here are some ways you can improve balance when you work out.
Improve Balance When You Strength Train
You can easily incorporate balance training into lower body strength training. Increase the balance challenge by doing one-legged squats, making sure to do both legs. Then do one-legged straight leg deadlifts on each side. You can also add balance work to upper body training. When you’re doing upper body exercises using dumbbells, do a few repetitions standing on one foot. This will engage stabilizing muscles in your core for added core strengthening. For example, stand on one foot and then the other while doing biceps curls.
It may be difficult to do one-legged exercises at first but over time you’ll notice significant improvements in your balance. Compound exercises where you’re working more than one muscle group at a time also work proprioception and balance. Combine lunges with biceps curls and dumbbell raises with squats. This is a real timesaver too.
Use a Bosu Balance Trainer or a Stability Ball for Balance Work
Doing exercises on a Bosu balance trainer, a dome that looks like an exercise ball cut in half creates an unstable platform that helps to improve proprioception and balance. Do squats while standing on the domed portion of a Bosu trainer or place one foot on its surface when doing lunges. Flip it over so the dome is facing down. Place your hands on each side of the flat base and do a set of push-ups.
To work your abs, sit on the domed surface of a Bosu trainer with your arms on the floor behind you and do leg raises to strengthen your abdominals and core while working on balance. At the end of your workout, stand on the domed surface of the trainer, raise one leg and balance as long as you can. Switch to the other leg.
Side planks and variations such as side planks with leg raises are another way to add a balance challenge to abdominal workouts. You can also do balance work on a stability ball. Rather than do abdominal work on a mat, lie on a stability ball instead. To work on balance and engage your core muscles throughout the day, sit on a stability ball when you’re doing computer work or use it in place of a chair at work. A stability ball is a versatile piece of equipment for improving core strength and balance.
Improve Your Sense of Dynamic Balance
There are two types of balance: static and dynamic. Static balance is the ability to remain stable and in equilibrium when you aren’t moving. Dynamic balance is the ability to remain stable when you’re moving. Both are important for sports performance and functionality in everyday life.
One way to improve dynamic balance is to do plyometric drills that involve lateral movements. Place a resistance tube on the floor. Stand on one side of the tube and jump to the other side using both feet. Keep jumping back and forth, varying the speed and height of your jumps. Single leg lateral hops are another good exercise for developing dynamic balance and power.
With lateral plyometric drills, you’re building power, burning calories and improving balance at the same time. Pretty good deal, huh?
Take Advantage of Opportunities to Work on Balance
You can work on balance while you’re standing in line or cooking in the kitchen. While you’re washing dishes, raise one leg off the ground and hold it up. For an even more challenge, close your eyes. It’s much more difficult to balance on one leg with your eyes closed because your brain doesn’t get input from your visual system. If you can stand on one foot with your eyes open for a minute or more, you’re doing well. When you do exercises on a mat, try to get up from a sitting position without using your hands. It may take strength and balance to do this and it’s a good way to challenge yourself.
The Bottom Line?
It’s easy to neglect balance exercises when you’re busy strength training. The good news is you can modify strength training moves to add more of a balance challenge. Don’t underestimate the importance of improving balance as you age. It reduces the risk of sports injuries and helps to prevent injuries when you play sports and when you do your daily activities.
Rakel Integrative Medicine. Second edition. “Balance and Agility”