By Laurel Lakey, Contributor
Most people discover that they become increasingly unsteady and less confident with their balance as they get older. Everyday movements that once felt like a breeze can somehow start to feel more challenging, causing many people to avoid activities that were once enjoyable. If you find yourself identifying with these changes, there is good news. Just like a muscle that can get stronger with a regular strengthening program, your balance can improve with the right selection and regular practice of targeted exercises.
To better understand which exercises can help improve your balance, it is helpful to learn about the three main components that comprise your balance system. The first part is your visual system. The ability to see your environment and respond to it accordingly is incredibly helpful in maintaining your balance; this is why it can be more challenging to walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night when it is dark and you can’t see well. The second part is your vestibular system, which resides in your inner ears. Every time you move your head, fluid inside of the inner ear shifts around, sending information to your brain regarding your head position. Your brain gathers this information and responds accordingly to help you stay steady. If you have ever experienced a loss of balance when turning your head suddenly, this is because your brain wasn’t able to respond quickly enough to your change in head position. The last component is your proprioceptive system, which entails tiny receptors in your joints and muscles that take in information about your body position and relay this to your brain.
To better explain proprioception, sit in a chair and close your eyes. Reach your arm up and down a few times and pay attention to how it feels to move your arm and hold it in different positions, even though you can’t see it. Your ability to sense your arm moving through space and holding different positions, without the aid of your eyes, is the result of your proprioception.
Just like a muscle that gets weak without being used, your balance system needs to be engaged in order to stay strong and avoid decline. The goal is to find ways to challenge the different components of your balance system in the right parameters without overdoing it. The following exercises have been shown through scientific research to help improve your balance and reduce the risk of a fall. If you choose to try the exercises at home, go slow and start with the most basic option before trying something more challenging. The objective is to find an option where you are wobbling around a little bit and that requires your full focus and attention to perform. If you are still as a rock and find your attention drifting to other matters, then the exercise is too easy. On the flip side, if you are constantly losing your balance and having to grasp a stable surface strongly with both hands to perform it, then it is too hard.
The first exercise is called narrow stance. Start by standing next to a stable surface, such as a heavy chair, table, countertop, etc. Place your hands on the stable surface and bring your feet tight together, touching if possible. If this does not seem to challenge your balance, try to lighten your touch on the stable surface. If it is still easy, challenge yourself to take one or both hands away from the stable surface. If this is still easy, you can try to cross your arms against your chest while trying to stay steady. Try to hold your balance for 30 seconds and repeat two times.
The second exercise is called staggered stance. Start with your feet in narrow stance and slide one foot forward so that the outside edge of one of your big toes sits against the inside arch of the other foot. Just as you did with narrow stance, start with your hands on a stable surface and progress through each of the more challenging hand options as seems appropriate. Remember, you should be wobbling around a little bit, but not so much that you must keep coming out of the foot position to avoid completely losing your balance. Once you find an appropriate level of challenge, hold for 30 seconds, and repeat twice on each side.
The last exercise is single leg balance. This is the most challenging of the three exercises and usually requires using your hands on a stable surface for some time before it becomes manageable to go hands-free. Place your hands on the stable surface and lift one foot off the floor. Continue to try to find an option where you are wobbling around some, but able to keep one foot off the floor. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat twice on each side.
These exercises are safe to perform daily, but you should try to get to them a minimum of three days a week to make progress. It usually takes around six weeks before people start to see notable gains, so be patient and stick with it. The reward of feeling steady and confident in your movement again is well worth the time and effort.
Laurel Lakey is a Physical Therapist Assistant at Dee Physical Therapy in Shelburne. She lives in Charlotte with her husband, toddler daughter, dog and farm animals. You can contact Laurel by email.