Whether you’re in your 20s or 60s, balance exercises should be part of your fitness training. We all need good balance to reduce the chance of falls, make climbing stairs easier, and to ease the task of getting up from a seated or reclined position.
I have the pleasure of training a number of adults that are well into their 50, 60s, and 70s, and I consider balance training to be of great importance in their personal fitness programs. I also include exercises that challenge ones balance in programs designed for younger people, because even they need work in this area.
Balance decreases as we age because of a combination of sensory, motor, and cognitive changes. Reaction time slows down, muscle strength declines after the age of 40, bone density drops 0.5% a year after the age of 40, and ankle flexion declines by 30-40% by the age of 70, increasing the chance of falls. Although no amount of physical activity can stop the natural process of aging, weight bearing exercises, good nutrition, and practicing good balance will certainly slow down this process and make everyday tasks more manageable.
My purpose of this article is to share with you some exercises I use with my clients to improve their balance and co-ordination. Here are some I like to incorporate:
1. One foot stands: Stand up straight with feet hip width apart. Slowly lift one foot off the floor, extending your arms out to the sides to assist with balance. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on opposite foot.
Variations: Stand on a mat or cushion to further challenge your balance and ankle stability. Stand on a flat surface and try this exercise with eyes closed.
Note: If balancing on one foot with eyes open on a flat surface cannot be held for at least 5 seconds, you are more likely to be injured in a fall over the next 3 years compared to those who can hold it greater than 5 seconds.
2. Hip Raises/Knee extensions on stability ball: Sit on top of a stability ball with your back up straight, arms extended to the sides. While keeping your hip and knee at 90 degrees of flexion, slowly lift up your right hip (keeping your knee bent). Hold this position for 30 seconds. Repeat on opposite side. During the second set, hold up your hip for 10 seconds, then extend your leg and squeeze the quadriceps for 10 seconds, flex the knee while holding the hip up for the final 10 seconds. Repeat on opposite side. For the third set, try extending your knee twice within the 30 seconds.
Variations: While keeping the feet planted on the floor (the wider the stance, the more stability) toss a light medicine ball back and forth. This will challenge both balance and reaction time.
Note: Some older adults may first need to practice simply sitting on the ball before adding the hip raises.
3. The Bird-Dog: Using a mat, get on your hands and knees while keeping your head facing down towards the floor (straight spine). Slowly extend your left leg and right arm, while keeping your back flat. Hold this position for 30 seconds. Repeat by extending the right leg and left arm.
Variations: During the second set, slowly draw your elbow and knee together, hold for a second, then extend again. This exercise can also be performed on a stability ball, or from a push-up like position.
Note: This exercise increases core strength in both the abdominals and low back, as well as improves stability.