Falls are the leading cause of fatal injuries for older adults. That’s why balance training is such an important part of my senior fitness programs as a personal trainer. You never know when you’ll need it.
Just a few weeks ago I had my own reminder. I was at the kitchen counter making lunch and never noticed my cat had silently slipped in and laid down on the floor behind me. All I know is when I started to turn and shifted my weight to step back from the counter, the next series of events could have been compared to a gymnastics training session. I’m not sure how I managed to stay upright and not step on my cat, but I’m sure it had everything to do with my fall prevention/balance training.
From my experience, the training needed to truly improve balance for seniors isn’t as simple as practicing to stand on one leg. It’s about working on the mechanics of your whole body. It’s about using movement or physical activity to improve posture alignment, which then reinforces better balance and helps prevent falls.
Athletes are a prime example of working on body mechanics. Their goal is to get stronger, faster, and have more endurance to play their sport better. For them, anything that’s not in alignment — posture, joints, or muscles that can affect their movement — could cause a loss of efficiency, pain, or an injury. You may think you don’t have anything in common with a trained athlete, but poor body mechanics cause the same problems in us. Anything that’s not properly aligned (especially posture) can cause pain and stiffness, affect balance, cause an injury, and make it harder to move throughout the day.
Balance Assessment Self Test
Most older adults I talk to freely admit their balance needs work. But in case you’re not sure, I’ve included a quick self test so you can check the current state of your balance. The test is very easy to perform and is actually an activity from a larger test assessment.
Please note that a complete balance test would require having someone lead you through a number of activities to make a comprehensive assessment.
For the self test:
- Stand with your feet together.
- Cross your arms across your chest.
- When you feel ready, close your eyes.
The object is to hold this position for a full 30 seconds.
The test is over, even if it has not been the full 30 seconds, if:
- You move or lift your feet, even slightly
- You start to sway
- You move your arms
- You open your eyes
- You could not close your eyes to complete step 3
If you were not able to get through the 30 seconds, or you felt too unstable with your feet together and your eyes closed, please start with the first version of the following exercises. Consider using the self test periodically to check your balance and note your progress as you start practicing the balance exercises.
Let’s start by correcting the most common body mechanics problem I’ve noticed while training seniors. It’s super easy to learn and will make practicing the exercises easier.
Note: Please do not take any risks that can cause you to fall while doing these exercises. Do the exercises while holding onto (or, for more advanced versions, in reach of) a sturdy chair, stable counter, or other types of furniture that will not fall, shift, or collapse when used for support.
Exercise #1: Stable Stance
The stable stance is the first move I review with all my clients. It’s a specific placement of your feet with a weight distribution that creates a solid base. It’s a simple way of creating a foundation of support so that you are instantly more stable and not feeling off balance. In a typical day, you’ll find dozens of times to practice.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart or slightly wider, toes pointing forward, and keeping your torso straight — not leaning forward or back –— using good posture.
- Bend your knees slightly, tightening the thigh muscles (quads), lower abdominals, and butt muscles. You are now in a stable stance.
Using the stable stance lowers your center of gravity, makes you more stable. It also helps you activate your core muscles, making you stronger. You can use the stable stance while performing almost any standing activity, especially if you do resistance training. Just be sure and practice proper posture at the same time.
Exercise #2: Alternating March With A Three Count Hold
- Stand tall and straight with good posture while using a stable stance.
- Stand next to a chair or counter and hold on with one hand, lifting your right knee up as high as what feels comfortable, shifting your weight to the standing left leg.
- Hold the right knee up while balancing on your left leg for a three count, keeping the thigh muscle of the left leg tight while keeping the knee slightly bent.
- Bring the right leg down, placing the right foot at shoulder width, so you are back in a stable stance.
- Change legs, bringing your left knee up and shifting your weight to balance on the right leg, and holding the left knee up for a three count.
- Repeat the march eight times, or four on each side.
- To make it more difficult, add more repetitions (the number of marches) up to 20, or try doing the marches without holding on. Stay close to something stable, however, in case you lose your balance.
- To make it an advanced move, start with your right arm straight above your head. Bring your right elbow down to meet your right knee as it comes up. Do 8-15 repetitions on the right side, switch, and repeat with the left side.
Proprioceptors, or the censors in your nerve endings that aid in balance, take a little while to kick in. Being on one leg for the first try may make you feel very unstable. Many times it takes up to four tries for the proprioceptors to kick in, so please don’t get discouraged after the first try. The more you challenge your balance, the better it will start to feel.
Exercise #3: One-Sided Front Step To Back Step
- Stand tall and straight with good posture while using a stable stance.
- Stand sideways to a chair or counter and hold on with one hand.
- Step forward with your right foot, using a step length that feels comfortable for you, shifting your weight to the right leg as you step.
- Using the ball of the right foot, push yourself back up to take a step backwards with the right foot using a comfortable step length.
- Repeat the front to back step 4 times, then switch to the left leg.
- To make it more difficult, add more repetitions up to 20, don’t hold on, or increase the length of your front and back steps.
- To make it an advanced move, bend your knees and turn the steps into a lunge. Keep your arms at 90 degrees and swing them back to front as you lunge.
Please make sure when you step front to back that your feet are still shoulder-width apart, maintaining that stable stance. You can use a strip of painters tape on the floor as a guide to make sure you don’t let your feet start drifting too close together and throw off your balance.
Exercise #4: Alternating One-Sided Jumping Jacks
- Stand tall and straight with good posture and a stable stance.
- Stand with a stable chair or counter in front of you and hold on with one hand.
- Lift your right leg to the side as high as what feels comfortable for you; bring the right arm above the head at the same time.
- Switch to the left side, bringing the left leg up and the left arm above your head at the same time, switching the hand you hold on with.
- Repeat each side 4 times.
- To make it more difficult, add more repetitions up to 20, or don’t hold on and speed up the tempo of your movements.
Exercises that involve having your arms above your head help improve your posture by strengthening the muscles that keep your shoulder blades down.
Also, moving an arm, or a leg, or even your torso while you’re trying to balance on one leg will cause you to wobble and shift your body weight to keep from falling. This is good because it helps to activate and strengthen your core muscles. It also makes the proprioceptors more sensitive to the variations and changes that are similar to what happens when you are starting to fall. As a side benefit, more active proprioceptors can help improve your reflexes.
As with any exercise program, please consult with your health provider or doctor before starting. Certain medications, diseases, hearing loss, and other physical limitations could make practicing balance more difficult.