Maintaining balance is essential at any age to prevent falls and lower the risk of injuries. However, stability concerns tend to plague older adults more often¹. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to improve our balance and preserve a healthier, happier life as we age. Come along as we explore seven practical tips for improving balance at any stage of life.
Exercise is an essential component of maintaining balance. There are two types of specific exercises that are particularly beneficial for balance: strengthening exercises and balance training exercises.
Strengthening exercises help build strength in the legs and core muscles. Examples of such exercises may include:
Small squats. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Keeping your back in a straight line, slowly push your bottom back while bending both knees. You may feel this exercise in your lower body and thigh muscles.
Hamstring curls. Assume a standing position with feet slightly apart. Bend your left knee, bringing the left heel toward your backside. Slowly lower the left foot back to starting position and repeat with the right leg. You may want to place both arms on a chair for standing balance.
Side leg raise. Start with your feet together. Lift your left leg out to one side, keeping your foot forward and your leg straight. After returning your left side to rest, repeat with the other leg, remembering to keep your right foot forward.
A balance exercise is designed to improve coordination and stability. Here are some common examples of balance exercises²:
Walking heel-to-toe. Standing tall, put both arms out to the side and place one foot directly in front of the other as you walk in a straight line forward. After a few steps, turn around and repeat in the other direction.
Weight shifts. Stand with your feet hip width apart, equally distributing your weight to both legs. Shift your weight to one side and slowly lift the other foot. Hold for a moment, then repeat on the other side.
Single leg balance. Similar to weight shifts, start with your feet hip width apart and your weight equally distributed. With your hands on your hips, lift one leg and bend it back slightly. Hold for a moment, then repeat on the other leg.
Be sure to talk to your doctor or physical therapist before trying any of these exercises or starting a workout routine. They can help you figure out which exercises are the safest and best options for you.
A well-balanced diet rich in nutrients is crucial for maintaining optimal balance. Adequate intake of protein, vitamins (especially D and B12), and minerals, like calcium and magnesium, supports muscle strength and coordination. Proper hydration is also essential for nerve signaling and muscle function³.
Incorporating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins while minimizing sugary and processed foods can provide the nutrients necessary for a stable and resilient body, enhancing both balance and overall health.
Creating a safe living environment is another pivotal factor for enhancing balance. To make sure you're always walking on a stable surface, follow these home safety tips:
Remove clutter and secure loose rugs to minimize tripping hazards.
Adequate lighting, especially in hallways and staircases, helps navigate spaces effectively.
Install handrails in critical areas, like bathrooms and stairs, for added support.
Non-slip mats in showers and tubs prevent slips.
Organize frequently used items within easy reach to avoid overreaching or bending.
The right footwear is essential for maintaining balance. Well-fitted shoes can provide more stability while walking and reduce the risk of slipping or stumbling.
Supportive and well-fitting footwear with cushioning and arch support provides a stable foundation for the feet.
Shoes with a firm grip and non-slip soles offer better traction, reducing the chances of slipping on smooth or uneven surfaces.
High-top shoes or those with adjustable straps can provide additional ankle support, aiding in maintaining balance during movements.
Incorporating orthotic inserts or custom insoles can further enhance balance by providing personalized support and alignment for the feet. These inserts may help correct gait abnormalities, distribute body weight more evenly, and alleviate pressure on specific areas of the feet.
Regularly assessing and updating footwear is essential, as worn-out or ill-fitting shoes can compromise stability. Be sure to talk to a podiatrist or footwear specialist before making any changes to your footwear, as they can help you make informed choices about the most suitable footwear for your specific needs.
Balance training is a crucial component of fall prevention, particularly among older adults and individuals with balance issues. This specialized form of exercise focuses on enhancing proprioception, coordination, and muscle strength to maintain equilibrium.
The benefits of balance training extend beyond just preventing falls. It enhances neuromuscular control, fosters better posture, and improves overall body awareness⁴. Moreover, as muscles adapt and grow stronger, the body becomes more adept at correcting balance disturbances in real-world scenarios.
Individuals of all ages can benefit from balance training. Whether through practicing yoga, tai chi, or specific balance-focused workouts, integrating this type of training into regular fitness routines can contribute to better athletic performance and reduce the likelihood of injuries across various activities while increasing confidence in movement and promoting a more stable, active lifestyle.
Vision plays a vital role in maintaining balance as well. Our visual system provides essential information about our surroundings, helping us perceive spatial orientation and detect potential hazards.
Visual cues allow us to judge distances, perceive changes in terrain, and anticipate obstacles. When we navigate our environment, our eyes provide continuous feedback to the brain, which in turn adjusts our body's posture and movements to maintain equilibrium. For example, when walking on an uneven surface, our visual system helps us adjust our steps and weight distribution to avoid stumbling.
Depth perception, a key visual function, allows us to accurately assess the height and depth of objects and surfaces. This is crucial for tasks like climbing stairs or stepping off curbs safely. Additionally, peripheral vision helps us detect movement in our surroundings, enabling us to respond quickly to unexpected changes.
Impaired vision, such as poor depth perception, nearsightedness or farsightedness, reduced peripheral vision, or difficulty focusing on moving objects, can compromise balance. Conditions such as glaucoma or macular degeneration may also further challenge a person's ability to maintain stability.
Regular eye examinations, proper eyewear, and adequate lighting in the environment are essential for optimizing vision and supporting good balance. Talk to your doctor or optometrist to learn more about addressing visual impairments to improve balance.
Balance aids are valuable tools designed to enhance stability. These aids provide crucial support and confidence during daily activities, enabling greater independence and reducing the risk of accidents. If you are experiencing balance problems, you may want to consider using a balance aid to help you move around safely.
Walking canes and hiking poles are common balance aids that distribute weight and improve stability. They help users maintain equilibrium while navigating various terrains and inclines. Quad canes with four prongs at the base offer even more support and stability, especially on uneven surfaces.
Rollators, which combine a walker with wheels, allow users to move with greater ease while providing a stable platform for balance. They often feature built-in seats and brakes for added safety and convenience.
Handrails and grab bars installed in bathrooms and stairwells offer essential support for maintaining balance during transitions. These aids are particularly beneficial in preventing slips and falls in areas prone to moisture.
Balance boards, stability balls, and foam pads are versatile aids used for balance training and rehabilitation. They challenge the body's stability and proprioception, aiding in strengthening the core muscles and improving overall balance control.
It's essential to choose the right balance aid based on individual needs and preferences. Consulting with a healthcare professional or physical therapist can help determine the most suitable aid for specific circumstances.
Taking steps to improve balance is essential for maintaining independence and quality of life at any age. Work with your doctor to plan the perfect routine to boost your stability so you can stay safe, healthy, and independent for years to come.
(1) National Institutes of Health (2023) Older Adults and Balance Problems
(2) Mayo Clinic Staff (June 2022) Balance exercises
(3) Lorenzo, Isabel, et al (August 2019) The Role of Water Homeostasis in Muscle Function and Frailty: A Review
(4) Zech, Astrid, et al (July 2010) Balance Training for Neuromuscular Control and Performance Enhancement: A Systematic Review