Research shows that maintaining good balance can help to reduce falls and fall-related injuries. It may also be an indicator of brain health: a recent Japanese study found that difficulty balancing on one leg for 20 seconds or more was linked to a higher risk of brain blood vessel damage and reduced thinking in otherwise healthy individuals. The Medical Research Council found a poor result in a standing balance test was linked to higher mortality.
So how can you improve your health with balancing exercises?
Test your balance
The standing stork test is a traditional, straightforward test to give you an idea of where you stand (‘scuse the pun) balance-wise.
Stand with hands on hips and place the bottom of one foot against the inside knee of the other leg. Lift the heel of your standing leg off the floor so you’re balancing on the ball of your foot. Time how long you can maintain this position. If your heel touches the floor or hands leave hips, restart the clock! Generally speaking, 30 seconds or above indicates good balance; below 10 seconds means you probably need to get practising to find your inner flamingo.
Too easy? Add a further challenge by closing your eyes. The visual part of your balancing system sends signals to your brain regarding the body’s position and its surroundings, hence the reason balancing with closed eyes can be tough. (The yoga Tree Pose is a ramped-up version of the stork test.)
10 easy ways to improve your balance
1. The first and most obvious balance trick is to perform everyday tasks on one leg. Try the following, balancing for 10-30 seconds on each leg at a time: Brushing teeth, talking on the phone, waiting for the bus or in the supermarket queue. Applying make-up or try grabbing a towel with your toes for an added standing challenge! Too tough? If you find yourself wobbling or tipping over on to one side, stand with feet close together and slowly lift one foot just an inch or two off the floor. Strengthening lower body muscles is key to improving your balance.
2. Bend! Knee bends are a great way to start strengthening lower body muscles. Stand with feet hip-width apart and push your bottom out as if you were going to sit down – don’t let your knees come forward over your toes or collapse inwards. Do 5-10 at a time throughout the day.
3. Take the stairs. A study found stair-climbing not only improved strength and fitness, it was also found to improve balance. You’re working against gravity as you push your body weight upwards so it’s a strength and balance win-win.
4. Workout on the escalator. Practise calf raises on steps and escalators to help build support and strength for the ankles. Stand on the stair so that just balls of feet remain on the step. Push up onto the balls of your feet, hold for a count of three. Do 10 reps at a time. Ensure you hold on!
5. Walk heel-to-toe. Easy to do whether you’re waiting for the bus or en route to the photocopier. Stand tall and position your right heel directly in front of your left toes. Switch by placing your left heel in front of your right toes. Keep looking straight ahead of you. Try for five steps and increase as your balance improves.
6. Shift your weight. This is a good way to practise your balance when out and about. Stand with feet hip-width apart, weight equally distributed before shifting entire body weight to your left side and lifting your right foot a few inches. Hold for up to 30 seconds before switching sides.
7. Be aware of your posture. Good alignment minimises the load on muscles and joints and in turn creates maximum mobility and stability for the whole body. Avoid locking knees; keep shoulders and arms relaxed. Minimise any slump or arch in the lower and upper back. Don’t tip your head forward or backwards.
8. Practise tummy tucks. Strong abdominal muscles are key as they help to protect the back and act like the base of a crane helping to keep you stable. Simple abdominal tucks that can be done anywhere involve drawing the lower part of your tummy back to your spine for a count of 10 without holding your breath or clenching buttocks.
9. Stand on a pillow. Standing on a variety of surfaces will help to provide an added balance challenge. Try standing on thick carpet or a thin pillow or cushion. Lift one leg off the surface, hold for a count of five and repeat.
10. And don’t forget your zzz. It’s thought that going short on shut-eye slows reaction time while a study of 3,000 women researchers by the California Pacific Medical Center found those who slept more than 5-7 hours each night were 40% less likely to fall than those who slept for less time.
The best balance exercise regimes
These exercises have the edge when it comes to working on your wobble…
Tai chi is one of the best forms of exercise if you want to improve balance. Strength, flexibility and good reflexes are key, all of which need work as we age. Many of the moves in Tai Chi involve positioning your body weight at dfferent angles on your feet, which helps you to get used to balancing while moving.
Yoga is a great way to work on balance. Not only are many poses balance-based, such as Half Moon Pose and Tree Pose, it also helps to improve balance because of the co-ordination involved. One study published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation found that participants who engaged in a 12-week programme of sitting, standing and breathing yoga exercises experienced a 4% increase in balance, a 6% reduction in fear of falling and a 34% increase in lower body flexibility.
Swimming Not the first sport that springs to mind when it comes to balance, but a 2014 study undertaken by the University of Western Sydney found older people who swam regularly were 33% less likely to experience a fall than those who participated in other types of exercise such as walking or golf. It’s thought the effort required to support your body in the water helps to improve balance.
Dancing. Brazilian researchers found half an hour of ballroom dancing three times a week over a three-month period resulted in fewer falls and a whopping 50% improvement in balance.
And, Did you know…?
Having good balance can have a beneficial effect on your exercise session too. Whether you’re moving or stationary, good balance helps you to maintain your body’s position so you’re optimising the impact of your workout, useful whether walking upstairs or practising that mountain pose.