“Having balance is so important—not only in fitness but in our everyday lives,” shares certified fitness trainer Katie Austin. “Balancing is a huge aspect of any movement we do—even when we're standing on our own two feet, we’re maintaining balance, whether we’re aware of it or not.”
- Emily Tomlinson, DPT, physical therapist and co-founder of Threes Physiyoga
- Katie Austin, fitness personality, recipe developer, creator of the Katie Austin app, TV host, and Sports Illustrated model
- Sabrena Jo, PhD, personal trainer and the American Council on Exercise senior director of science and research
The benefits of doing exercises to improve balance
As we age, our balance typically starts to decline—often due to medications or medical issues. Sabrena Jo, PhD, a personal trainer certified in working with seniors, has also told Well+Good that our stability decreases because our vision and vestibular system (that all-important inner ear) can start to go, as can our strength, reaction time, and coordination. This means our risks of accidents like falls increases. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that one in four people over 65 experience a fall each year, making it the leading cause of injuries and injury-related deaths among this population.
The antidote? Incorporating balancing exercises into our fitness routine. “It helps to reverse age-related loss of balance, prevent falls and accidents, improve posture, assist in recovering from injuries faster, improve coordination, allow for more effective and efficient workouts, build muscle, and improve cardio,” says Austin.
Test your balance in 30 seconds
How can you tell if you need to work on your balance? Evaluate your skills with this quick test from trainer Justin Agustin, CPT, known for his beginner-friendly workouts on TikTok: Stand on one leg, cross your arms across your chest, close your eyes, and see how long you can last before needing to put your other foot down. Aim for 30 seconds but know that 10 seconds is the average. If you last less than five seconds, that's your sign that it's time to get serious about balance training.
Where does balance come from?
“Our balance comes from our core,” Austin says. “Your core entails the central part of your body, including your pelvis, lower back, hips, and stomach. When we train our core muscles, they help the other muscles work cohesively and in harmony, which leads to better balance and stability.”
But a lack of core strength isn't the only culprit to blame if your balance is off. Our feet and ankles also need to provide us with a stable base, as physical therapist Emily Tomlinson, DPT, co-founder of Threes Physiyoga, has told Well+Good about our ankle joints. "Our ankles play a really important role in taking our whole body and stacking it above that stable platform," she says. "They're also really important in our feedback about where our body is in the space. They help us adapt."
Balance exercises to try
There's no need to make balance training complicated. Try working these three exercises from Dr. Jo into your rotation regularly:
1. Stand on one leg
This is precisely what it sounds like. "This may seem like an obvious one, but it's really helpful," Dr. Jo says. Standing with your feet together (holding on to something like a wall if necessary), slowly bring one foot off the ground, hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
2. Do forward or backward lunges
Lunges are a natural move we make to catch ourselves when we teeter off balance, points out Dr. Jo. Practicing different lunges can help you strengthen the muscles you need to bring yourself back upright.
3. Step side to side
Do a side shuffle from one end of the room to the other, suggests Dr. Jo. Once you're comfortable, make yourself an obstacle course by placing items you need to avoid on the floor along the way. This mimics moves we need to make in real life, Dr. Jo says. "You can also walk across the room backwards as well, just to get all the directions in," she says.
Looking for something more structured? Add this workout into your regular rotation:
Why isn’t my balance improving?
If you're consistently working on balance techniques but you find you've hit a veritable exercise plateau, here are a few things that might be going on.
1. Muscular instability and weaknesses
Balance requires overall muscle strength. “The best way to strengthen the core for balance is to target the full body,” Austin says. So if you’re struggling with balance improvement, make sure you’re frequently incorporating muscle-building and resistance training into your workout regimen. It helps not only stabilize and strengthen the muscles but the joints as well, and the stronger these areas are, the more control you have over how your body moves in space. This contributes to better balance and recovery time in the case of a fall.
How long it takes to improve your balance through strength training will be different for everyone, but one 2016 study found that after six weeks of strength training for 16 minutes four times per week, participants improved their one-leg standing times by 32 percent with eyes open, 206 percent with eyes closed on a solid surface, and 54 percent with eyes closed on a softer surface. (Yes, poor balance can be improved!)
2. You’re choosing movements that are either too easy or difficult
When we’re working on our balance, slow and steady wins the race, but you also need to be progressively challenging yourself. It’s best to start with simple balance exercises and build from there. If balance poses like standing on one leg while flexing the other out straight is too difficult, simplify it. Start by ever so slightly lifting the other leg off of the ground, or even have a wall next to you to hold onto for support. Once you’ve mastered a move, it’s time to progress on to the next level.
Note: Balance boards are a fantastic challenge once you're feeling super stable, but it's best to start on solid ground first, then work your way up.
3. You’re not being consistent
Like everything, improvements take time and dedicated effort. A 2015 study found that doing three to six training sessions per week for 11 to 12 weeks, with four balance exercises per session, was effective in improving people’s balance.
“You don’t need a bunch of fancy equipment to improve your balance,” shares Austin, adding her favorites include single-leg Romanian deadlifts, bird dogs, and modified pistol squats, all of which are unilateral movements, meaning they work one side of the body at a time—something that’s ideal for improving balance and building strength without developing muscular imbalances by letting your dominant side take over. “Try each side and see which needs the most improvement,” Austin suggests.
Work on your balance regularly and you’ll be standing on one leg with your eyes closed in no time.
- Hafström, Anna et al. “Improved Balance Confidence and Stability for Elderly After 6 Weeks of a Multimodal Self-Administered Balance-Enhancing Exercise Program: A Randomized Single Arm Crossover Study.” Gerontology & geriatric medicine vol. 2 2333721416644149. 26 Apr. 2016, doi:10.1177/2333721416644149
- Lesinski, Melanie et al. “Effects of Balance Training on Balance Performance in Healthy Older Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.) vol. 45,12 (2015): 1721-38. doi:10.1007/s40279-015-0375-y
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