Balance Training Benefits All Ages, All Fitness Levels… Here’s How

Every day is a balancing act… how true, especially as we age, since losing balance is often what causes dangerous falls. The simplest motions, such as walking, standing, reaching and lifting, require balance skills that many of us take for granted until we are challenged by injury, illness or simply the aches and pains of aging. Surprisingly, even those who exercise regularly may have muscle development that is out of balance, as I learned after a recent ACL injury. Exercise specialists recommend balance training, along with aerobic exercise and strength training, as an integral part of a regular fitness routine at every age.

To learn more about balance training, I spoke with Juan Carlos Santana, MEd, CSCS, director of the Institute of Human Performance in Boca Raton, Florida. “Balance training teaches you how to stabilize your body by engaging your muscles and joints,” he explained. Even those who exercise regularly can still have muscles that are “out of balance” and unable to support you from all angles. Balance exercises are easy to incorporate into your life, no matter what your age. In fact, Santana has taught them to his 75-year-old mother. “She always eats her lunch standing at her kitchen counter. About a year ago, I taught her to do balance exercises while she eats her lunch,” he said. “Now, in between bites, she holds on to the kitchen counter and does single-leg balance exercises and mini pumps.”

USE IT OR LOSE IT

Balance exercise is important for everyone at every level of fitness, including elite athletes, patients recovering from illness, and, of course, seniors. As with all forms of exercise, how much you need depends on your fitness level. For people in good shape, daily life likely provides a lot of balance movement. Those who are less fit need to do more. In other words — use it or lose it.

In order to be effective, each balance repetition should be done in a slow and fluid motion, at a rate of about four to five seconds per repetition. Begin by holding onto something or use your arms in the exercises for security and added balance — but eventually try to perform balance exercises without support. Fix your eyes on a point straight ahead (e.g. a painting or light switch on a wall). Maintain good posture, keep your core tight and bend knees slightly while doing the exercises. When you can successfully perform them in a slow and controlled fashion, start to speed up the movement. This will help develop a quick reaction when you need to move fast to maintain balance, for instance when you start to slip on a wet floor.

WHAT TO DO

Here are some exercises: Begin with both feet on the floor, hip-width apart and do five squats, trying to get a little lower each time. Once you master the squats, which may take about a week, progress to balancing on a single leg. To progressively master the single-leg balance, gradually go from being assisted (holding onto something) to unassisted (letting go and balancing on your own). After mastering the single-leg balance, progress to single-leg pumps (i.e. mini squats on a single leg, with upper body upright). Start with five repetitions of each exercise and work up to 20 repetitions. This type of balance training can eventually be performed every day. Cut back on the frequency if you feel pain or see swelling. Here are some additional suggestions and variations for balance training…

  • Stand upright on one leg for 15 to 30 seconds (most people find this is a challenge). Now do it on the other leg.
  • Stand upright on the ball of one foot for 15 to 30 seconds, then the other.
  • Stand upright on your right leg while slowly “writing” your initials on the ground with the left foot in front, to the left and behind you. Do not put any weight on the left foot while you are moving it over the surface of the ground. Now switch legs and do this with your right foot.
  • This next exercise can be performed on any 12- to 14-inch grid, such as floor tiles, or you can draw the grid on a sidewalk or driveway with chalk, as you used to do with hopscotch. Stand with your right foot on the line where four tiles intersect under your arch. It does not matter which direction you face. Now, touch the center of each of the four tiles that meet under your right foot with the first toe of your left foot. Take four to five seconds to move from target to target to ensure you are moving slowly and maintaining control of your body. Feel free to bend your right knee and rotate your hips as necessary to accomplish the task. Do this clockwise and counter-clockwise, with each foot, until you reach the point where you don’t need to plant your moving foot for balance — then proceed to the next level.
  • Set yourself up the same way and then try to touch the outside corners of the same tiles you’ve just touched at the center. When you succeed at this, try touching the center of each of the tiles surrounding the previous four tiles. For those of you who still need to be challenged further, try touching the outside corners of those tiles.

BALANCED WORKOUT SCHEDULE

Try to practice balancing about five to 10 minutes per day, three to five days per week. You can use this type of exercise as a prelude or conclusion to recreational activities such as golf or tennis. This light protocol also makes a great warm-up for walking or running. After mastering this simple progression, you will be ready to partake in even more difficult balancing exercises.

Equipment like rockerboards, foam rollers, balance disks and large stability balls can add challenges and interest by providing an unstable environment on which to practice balance, Santana noted. But, don’t experiment with these devices when you’re home alone… and also, make sure you have ample space so you won’t hit your head in the event you take a tumble. When using apparatus, always start supported, by holding onto a wall or a rail with your hands. Then let go with one hand before trying no hands — keep in mind that these balance toys are not as easy to use as they may seem.

As with any exercise, begin balance training slowly and carefully to avoid injury. It’s risky to go too fast, too soon. If you don’t know how to do an exercise, ask a fitness professional. For more information, visit the Institute of Human Performance Web site at www.ihpfit.com.

“Balance training is a lifelong exercise,” says Santana. “Once you’re good at balance, it’s yours for life, and you need only a minimal amount of balance training every day to maintain it.”