Cut your risk of falls with these simple stability moves
by Mike Zimmerman, AARP, June 18, 2019
En español | Just like strength, balance declines with age. And with a loss of balance comes an increased risk of injury and loss of mobility. But strength and balance training can improve your ability to stay centered and stable on your feet.
"There’s a huge relationship between balance and strength,” says Mary Helen Bowers, founder of New York City–based Ballet Beautiful and a professional ballerina who offers balance, strength and flexibility training.
Bowers recommends four exercises you can do in less than 10 minutes a day. “Do them three to four times a week for a few weeks and you’ll notice a difference,” she says.
Stand with one hand on a wall for stability. Keeping both legs straight, lift one leg and stretch it in front of you until it’s at a 45-degree angle to your body, toes pointed. Now touch your toes to the ground, hold a moment and return to the starting position. Do 2 sets of 8 reps with each leg.
Knee Bends With Heel Raises
Stand with one hand on a wall for stability, your other arm at your side. Keeping your feet together and torso straight, bend your knees. Next, lift your heels off the floor as you straighten your legs and raise your free arm above your head. Hold for a moment. Perform 2 sets of 8 reps.
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The goal of balance exercises is to improve stability and coordination throughout your body. Balance helps you stay upright as you do activities like walking, biking, climbing stairs, or dancing. It’s important to do exercises that improve your balance, even as you get older.
Having good balance helps prevent injuries. Older individuals are especially at risk for accidents involving slips and falls, so it’s necessary to keep your balance well trained as you get older.
Research has shown the significant role that balance exercises play in an older person’s quality of life. For instance, a study from 2016 found that older adults who began a regular balance exercise program improved their ability to move unassisted.
The following exercises are meant to help you balance better. Take your time as you start them, and be sure you have something nearby to grab onto in case you lose your balance while doing the exercise. Remember to stop if you feel pain. If the pain lasts for days or weeks, talk to your doctor.
Exercises to Help Seniors Balance Better
All of these exercises are intended to support the natural alignment of your body. Since your muscles and bones wear down naturally as you grow older, performing these exercises regularly can help you maintain the same lifestyle that you’re used to. You can do these exercises at your own home using objects you have around you and your own body weight.
Single Leg Balance
This is a simple exercise for improving balance. You should do this while holding onto a chair if you’re just starting out.
Step 1: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
Step 2: Extend your arms out to the sides and slowly lift your right knee up off the floor.
Step 3: Straighten your leg out in front of you, hold that position for 30 seconds, and relax.
Repeat this exercise for both legs at least three times.
Follow up your single-leg balance with the tree pose, an excellent and easy exercise for balance. This exercise is also a popular yoga move. Keep a chair handy while you do it.
Step 1: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding one hand to your chest and the other on a chair. You can also rest both hands to your chest if you feel comfortable doing so.
Step 2: Now raise your right leg straight up, turning your foot inward as you do. Gently rest the sole of your right foot against the side of your left thigh.
Step 3: Hold this position for at least 30 seconds, or longer if you can.
Do the same on the other leg and repeat this exercise three times.
This exercise can be performed using a line of tape, the lines between flooring tiles, or any straight line you can find.
Step 1: Pick a destination to walk toward.
Step 2: Like walking a tightrope, extend your arms out to the sides and start walking slowly, being careful to keep your feet on the line at all times.
Step 3: Walk from heel to toe, counting at least five seconds before each step.
Try this exercise once a day to keep your coordination sharp.
This exercise builds your hip muscles and stabilizes your core. Do this while standing near a wall you can steady yourself with.
Step 1: Begin standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and touch your hands to a wall.
Step 2: Now raise your right leg up to your hip as though marching. Lower it and do the same for the left.
Step 3: Increase the difficulty by going a little faster or raising your legs higher.
Repeat for both sides about 10 to 20 times.
When you lose your balance while walking, you usually take a step forward or back to regain it. Lunges help you keep this ability strong.
Step 1: Begin standing straight with your hands on your hips.
Step 2: Now step your right foot forward, bending at the knee. Lower yourself until your right thigh is parallel with the floor below.
Step 3: Breathe, hold for 30 seconds, and slowly return to the starting position. Repeat for the left leg.
Do this for each leg about five to 10 times.
Although balance exercises are certainly important for older adults, they must be done carefully. Be sure you have something nearby to stabilize you, like a chair, wall, or even another person.
Take plenty of breaks and don’t try to do too much at once. If you have any concerns about starting a new balance program or you experience any pain doing these exercises, talk with your doctor before continuing.
Aging Care: “4 Balance Exercises for Seniors That Help Prevent Falls.”
Aging in Place: “Top 10 Elderly Balance Exercises To Improve Balance And Coordination.”
American Heart Association: “Balance Exercise.”
Gerontology & Geriatric Medicine: “Improved Balance Confidence and Stability for Elderly After 6 Weeks of a Multimodal Self-Administered Balance-Enhancing Exercise Program.”
Mayo Clinic: “Balance exercises.”
U.S. News & World Report: “The 6 Best Exercises for Preventing Falls in Older Adults.”
Washington Post: “Four yoga moves for older adults that boost balance, ease pain and enhance health.”
We often don’t think much about balance — until we start to lose it. When I see new clients over the age of 55, many of them tell me they’re looking for fitness coaching, in part because they feel their balance has slowly but steadily declined.
Lack of balance is a big contributor to falls in later life, which can have devastating effects, including loss of mobility and loss of independence. The good news is you can improve your balance at any age. Research indicates that with appropriate exercise training older adults can improve their balance and strength.
By improving your balance, you’ll also perform better in your chosen sports (especially cycling, tennis, squash, golf and swimming), and you’ll be at lower risk for injury in your day-to-day activities. The three moves below will get you started.
1. Single Leg Deadlifts
In addition to improving your balance, this exercise strengthens your hamstrings and core.
Stand with your arms at your sides, with your right foot a few inches off the floor. Keeping your left knee very slightly bent, lean forward onto your left leg, raising your right leg behind you and reaching toward the floor with your hands. Your head, back and right leg should form a straight line, parallel to the ground. Hold for a second and slowly return to the start position. Complete repetitions, then switch sides. Start with 3 sets of 5 repetitions on each leg, progressing to 3 sets of 10 repetitions as your balance and strength improve.
2. Reverse Lunges
Lunges create stability in your core, as well as all of the working joints in your lower body (like your knee and ankle joints). They also strengthen your quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves. The reverse lunge is a more knee-friendly exercise than forward lunges. That’s why I use this version with older adults who have knee pain or want to protect their joints.
Stand upright with your hands on your hips. Step backward with your right leg, dropping your right knee toward the ground and bending your left knee to 90 degrees. Make sure your left knee is stacked directly over your ankle, and not moving to either side. Press through your left heel and return your right leg to the start position. Repeat repetitions, then switch sides.
Once you can perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions on each leg, try this variation: Instead of returning your back leg to meet your front leg in the start position, lift your leg from behind you toward your chest, with knee bent at 90 degrees, then step back into your next lunge.
3. Single Leg Chair Squats
The full version of this exercise is more challenging than it might seem, so I have my clients start with just the lowering phase of the move before progressing to the full movement. All my clients perform this exercise – it’s that effective. My older clients, in particular, note its ability to not only improve balance, but also single-leg strength, which carries over into activities like running, hiking and even getting up from a low chair.
Start by standing about a foot in front of a sturdy chair, facing away from the chair. Lift your left leg off the floor, keeping it straight. Slowly, over a count of about 4 seconds, squat down using only your right leg, until you’re sitting in the chair. Stand up using both legs, then repeat the repetitions before switching to work the left leg.
Once you’re comfortable performing 10 repetitions in a row on each leg, switch it up. When you stand back up, do it on one leg, so you’re completing your whole set without touching the floor with your non-working leg. Start with only 2 or 3 repetitions, and work your way up to 10.
Most so-called “balance training” equipment (like BOSU balls or balance boards at the gym) is actually much less effective than you’d think. They don’t translate well into everyday movements, and present a risk for joint injuries — especially the ankle, and especially in older adults who may have osteoporosis, arthritis or other joint concerns. You don’t need fancy equipment to improve your balance. You can do so in your own home, and do it more effectively.
About the Writer
Karina is a Certified Personal Training Specialist with a Master’s degree in Gerontology, and specializes in health and aging. Based in Vancouver, BC, she’s the author of Vegan Vitality and Foam Rolling: 50 Exercises for Massage, Injury Prevention and Core Strength.
Plus, three simple ways you can test your balance at home.
Standing and staying upright might seem like a simple act for your body to pull off, but it actually takes teamwork from three major systems: your vision, your inner ear, and your internal sense of limb position and movement, called proprioception. Take one away from the equation (say, by closing your eyes, or standing on an unstable surface), and balancing becomes trickier.
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However, challenging yourself is the best way to enhance your balance, as you’ll see when you do the following exercises. All you need are a pillow (the firmer, the better) and a basketball or another object of similar weight. Trust us: Working on your balance throughout life will mean that by your senior years, when balance gets rockier, you’ll just need to maintain what you already have instead of starting from scratch.
First, how to test your balance.
Before you get started, try these three stability challenges to find out where your balance falls right now.
—Test 1: Stand still with your feet lined up heel to toe.
—Test 2: Stand on one foot, raising the other so it hovers a few inches off the floor.
—Test 3: Hold the position in test 2, then close your eyes.
For each challenge, how easy was it for you to stay upright for at least 10 seconds?
—Simple: You didn’t sway or touch your foot to the floor. [Your balance: GREAT]
—Fairly easy: You may have wobbled slightly. [Your balance: NORMAL]
—A little tricky: You needed occasional support (like a countertop) to balance. [Your balance: OK]
—Difficult: You couldn’t maintain the pose, even with support. [Your balance: POOR]
These seven exercises engage your whole body as they fine-tune your balancing skills. Bonus: They’ll also tone and strengthen your lower body and core.
1. Tiptoe reach
Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a ball at waist height. Lift your left leg slightly behind you, keeping your foot off the floor. Balancing on your right leg, reach the ball up and over your head. Once your arms are fully extended, rise up onto your tiptoes. Hold a moment, then lower your right foot. Keeping your left foot off the floor, bring the ball back to waist height. Repeat 10 times; switch legs.
Pro tip: To amp up the difficulty level, try closing your eyes while you do these moves.
2. Skater taps
Stand with your feet wider than hip-width apart, hands on hips, and sink into a squat. Hold the squat, then tap your left leg straight out to the side, shifting your torso as little as possible. Bring your leg back to center, and repeat with your right leg. That’s 1 rep—do 10.
Pro tip: When doing squats, make sure your knees don’t extend beyond your toes.
3. One-foot hop
Stand with feet hip-width apart, then lift your right leg slightly out behind you, keeping your foot off the floor. Place your hands on your hips, then take a small hop forward. Regain your balance, then hop forward again. Do 10 hops on one leg, then switch sides.
Pro tip: To take things down a notch, hop in place instead of going forward.
4. Ball twist
First, stand on your right leg with your left knee raised, holding a ball close to your body at waist height. Then, twist your torso to bring the ball all the way to your left, then twist to bring it all the way to your right. Return to center to complete 1 rep. Do 5 reps, then switch legs.
5. Single-leg dead lift
Stand with feet hip-width apart. Raise your right knee toward your chest. Bending your left leg slightly, hinge forward and extend your right leg behind you, reaching your hands toward the floor. Hold a moment, then return to start. Repeat 10 times, then switch legs.
6. Semi-circle sweeps
First, stand on your left leg, hands on hips, and extend your right leg in front of you at the 12 o’clock position. Then, keeping your leg straight, sweep the foot around in a semi-circle to the six o’clock position, then bring it back to 12 o’clock. Repeat 10 times; switch legs.
7. Pillow stance
Stand with both feet in the center of a pillow, hands on hips. Lift your right leg to hip height with the knee bent 90 degrees. Hold as long as you can withoutl owering your right leg, then switch legs. Repeat twice for each leg.
Pro tip: Focusing on a spot a few feet in front of you can help your body stabilize.
Do-anywhere balance boosters
- Stand on one foot while brushing your teeth or waiting in line at the grocery store.
- Walk heel to toe for 20 steps when grabbing the mail or heading to your car.
- Stand on your tiptoes while washing dishes or blowdrying your hair.
This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Prevention.
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Balance exercises improve your ability to control and stabilize your body’s position. This type of exercise is particularly important for older adults — as you age, your ability to know where you are in space, called proprioception, gets worse, which contributes to a decline in balance, said said Kelly Drew, an exercise physiologist with the American College of Sports Medicine.
But balance exercises can benefit people of any age, including people who have gained or lost a lot of weight or those who become pregnant, which can throw off your center of gravity, Drew said.
These exercises are also important for reducing injury risk. For example, if you sprain your ankle, you could be at risk for reinjury if you don’t retrain your balance, said said Dr. Edward Laskowski, co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center in Rochester, Minnesota. That’s because when you sprain your ankle, the muscles around the joint stop contracting in a coordinated fashion, and this destabilizes the joint, Laskowski said. If you do balance exercises after the injury, it retrains the muscles to contract together, which better stabilizes the joint during movements and prevents reinjury, he said.
And most athletes can benefit from balance training to help them maintain balance during their sport activity. “[In] almost all athletic endeavors, you’re going to be on one foot at a time while you’re doing things,” said , said Jason Schatzenpahl, a fitness specialist at the CU Anschutz Health and Wellness Center in Aurora, Colorado.
Examples of balance exercises include:
- Shifting your weight from side to side
- Standing on one foot
- Walking heel to toe
- Using a balance board or stability ball
- Doing tai chi, yoga or Pilates.
Benefits of doing balance exercise include:
- Prevents falls
- Reduces the risk of lower-extremity injuries, such as knee and ankle injuries
- Improves proprioception (the ability to know where you are in space)
How much balance exercise do you need?
There’s no limit to how much balance training you can do safely — you can do it every day if you want, Laskowski said. A 2015 review study found that doing three to six balance training sessions per week, with four balance exercises per training session, for 11 to 12 weeks was effective in improving people’s balance.
How can you avoid injury when doing balance exercise?
The main risk of doing balance exercises is that you might fall, Drew said. Make sure you have something close to you that you can hold on to if you start to fall, Drew said. If you use equipment such as a stability board, you should make sure you are on a flat, stable and nonslippery surface, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
Start with an easy balance exercise, like shifting your weight from side to side or standing on one foot for a few seconds, and gradually make your sessions more challenging — for example, by increasing the time you spend on one foot, the ACSM recommends. Also, you should start on a stable surface and in a single position before adding any movements or balance exercise equipment.
This simple home exercise is the best for mobility and independence
The ability to stand up from a chair makes a huge difference in everyday life for seniors. It helps with essential activities like getting up from the toilet, out of bed, and out of a chair.
That’s why the sit to stand exercise is probably the best of the mobility exercises for seniors.
It’s a functional exercise for that exact movement and strengthens leg, core, and back muscles.
Those muscles are needed to increase mobility and independence as well as improve balance .
Plus, no equipment is needed and it can be done anywhere you can put a chair.
We found a straightforward and free video from Eldergym that shows how to do the basic sit to stand exercise as well as how to make it more challenging as seniors gain strength.
We give an overview of the exercise instructions, recommendations for how many repetitions to do, and tips on how to keep your older adult safe while exercising.
How to do the sit to stand exercise
The video demonstrates how to do the basic exercise, then adds various elements to increase the difficulty as your older adult gains strength.
A sturdy chair that won’t slide on the floor
Optional for more advanced levels: a flat pillow, foam balance pad , ball/similar object
1. Basic sit to stand exercise (1 min 5 sec in video)
- Scoot/walk hips up to the edge of the chair
- Bring toes back underneath knees
- Optional: Use arms to push off the chair or off of knees
- Lean forward a little to bring nose over toes and push up with legs to a standing position
- To sit, bend a little at the knees to push hips toward chair and lower the body to a seated position
- Pause before doing the next repetition
Safety tip: In step 3, he mentions holding onto a walker or chair to help with standing. We don’t recommend this because pulling or pushing on a walker or cane can cause the legs to slip, which then could cause a fall. In the video, he’s doing it more safely with one hand on the chair and one hand on the walker/cane, but doing this tends to lead to unsafe habits, like using two hands to pull on a walker or cane.
2. Intermediate level sit to stand exercise (2 minutes 30 seconds in video)
- Do the same steps as in the basic exercise and keep arms crossed over chest the whole time
3. Advanced level sit to stand exercise (3 minutes 14 seconds in video)
- Do the same steps as in the intermediate exercise and place a relatively flat pillow under the feet to challenge balance
4. Super advanced level sit to stand exercise (4 minutes 13 seconds in video)
- Do the same steps as in the advanced exercise and hold a lightweight ball (or similar object) in front of the body, about chest height
Find the ideal number of repetitions
The video recommends doing 10 repetitions of exercise every day, if possible.
But each person’s health and strength is at a different level, so it’s important to figure out what works best for them.
To determine the ideal number of repetitions for your older adult, gauge their ability while doing the basic version of the exercise.
For example, if doing 2 repetitions of sit/stand is quite challenging, then that’s their current limit.
Your older adult should be able to complete their number of repetitions without getting so tired that they’re weak or off balance. But they should be using effort and getting a bit tired since the goal is to work their muscles.
Over time, slowly build up to 10 or more repetitions and increase the difficulty when the exercise isn’t challenging enough.
Safety during exercise is the top priority
Safety is number 1!
The most important thing is that your older adult doesn’t fall or hurt themselves while exercising.
For older adults who are unsteady on their feet, we recommend having them wear a gait belt while you stand next to them and lightly hold on to the belt while they do their exercises. That way, you can provide instant stability in case they get off balance.
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Different types of balance exercises may focus on different areas of the body, though the core abdominal muscles are some of the most important exercises for improving balance and posture. Other balance exercises may target the muscles of the back and the legs, which are also quite important for balance. This may include yoga or Pilates exercises, simple stretching exercises, weight lifting, or working with props such as a stability board or balance ball.
Working with a stability board is one of the most common balance exercises. There are different designs for these boards, but typically they feature a non-slip plank atop a rubber ball. The user stands with both feet on the plank and attempts to make small corrections to stay balanced on the board without letting it tip from side to side. Height variations are available, and people who get more practiced at this will often try other exercises on the balance board, such as jumps, steps, or twists.
A balance ball or exercise ball is also commonly used for balance exercises. One may attempt to sit, stand, kneel, or do push-ups or crunches on the ball. These exercises help to increase strength, but they also require constant small corrections in the muscles all throughout the body to prevent rolling right off the ball. Some people also use a balance ball in place of a desk chair to help with posture, strengthen the abs, and do balance exercises while still working at a desk.
Yoga and Pilates are also excellent sources of balance exercises. These stretching exercises often focus heavily on the core muscles, which improve posture as well as balance. In addition, there are numerous exercises that require standing on one foot while maintaining control of the body. Whenever one is practicing balance exercises that require standing on one foot, it is best to place a chair or some sort of balance bar in front in order to prevent any falls.
Some people use weight lifting in conjunction with these exercises to strengthen the muscles of the legs as well as improve balance. Playing a sport, even just recreationally, can also help to improve balance because it improves coordination. All of these things work together to keep the body balanced and upright, so it is best not to neglect one area of the body in favor of exercising another; a well-rounded exercise program will inherently improve balance.
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I used to do crunches as my main core balance exercise, but I had always heard personal trainers say that crunches could do more harm than good to the neck and back if not done properly. Crunches are not very fun, and they can cause the neck to strain, so I decided to try something else.
I had seen a few exercise programs on TV that claimed you could develop strong abdominal muscles simply by using them while dancing. I didn’t purchase any videos, but I watched the infomercials, and I copied some of the dancer’s movements at home.
The trick is to crunch your abs while standing up with every move you make. You can move them in so many ways, because you are not limited by the standard crunch position.
Within a month of doing my new core workout, I could see definition in my abs like never before. Dancing was so much more effective than doing crunches, and it was much more fun. I can tell that my balance has improved as well. seag47 August 18, 2011
I believe that my balance has improved because of my workout routine. It isn’t very hard by most standards, but I do it regularly, and I have developed good muscle tone and core strength because of it.
Every other day, I do two sets of twenty crunches. Then, lying flat, I bend my knees up to my chest twenty times. After a short rest, I lift my legs about twelve inches off the floor about ten times while holding them out straight. I can see the definition in my core muscles.
I lift five-pound weights, but I do enough repetitions and different positions to do my muscles some good. I also do push-ups, and my biceps have developed well.
I think that the muscles developed in my basic strength training enable me to do dance workouts that require balance and control. Without good muscle tone, I would be wobbling all over the place while trying to dance! Oceana August 17, 2011
I attend a Yoga class, and the leg balance exercises are the most challenging for me. That could be because I’m not very flexible, but if it happens to be because my balance needs improving, then this class should fix it.
One move requires me to bend to one side and touch my hand to my foot while holding the opposite leg out at a ninety-degree angle. I have to hold this position for about twenty seconds, and I start to wobble after about ten. I think that as my muscles strengthen, I will be able to hold it longer. kylee07drg August 16, 2011
I have an abdominal workout video that uses a stability ball for balance exercises. I enjoy the support offered by the ball, and I can feel my muscles adjusting to the positions.
The workout starts with the simple position of sitting upright on the ball with your arms stretched out to your sides. Slowly, you start to move the ball side to side, then back and forth.
As the workout progresses, you do harder movements, like rolling the ball all the way back to your feet. You support yourself with your hands while rolling the ball up your shins and back down to your feet.
The moves are challenging. I could really feel the burn in my core muscles after my first workout. I can see how it would help you improve your balance.
Many people experience vertigo . If you have Ménière’s disease or benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), you may have to deal with vertigo throughout your life. The spinning sensation it causes puts you at risk for falling and can also affect your quality of life if it interferes with your level of activity. You can do exercises at home to help your body get used to the confusing signals that cause your vertigo. Doing these exercises may help you cope with your vertigo.
How to exercise for balance
Exercises can help you improve and safeguard your balance. Level 1 exercises include the Romberg exercise, standing sway exercises, and marching in place. These are “beginner” exercises. Over time you may try level 2 exercises, such as turning in place and doing head movements while standing. These are a little harder than level 1 exercises. Your vertigo symptoms may improve within a few days to a few weeks.
With each exercise, start out slowly. Over time, you can gradually try to do the exercise for a longer time or do more repetitions. When you first begin, it is important to have someone with you in case you feel you are going to fall. As you progress, you may be able to do some of the exercises on your own.
If you are concerned about falling, always have someone with you.
- Level 1 exercises may help to improve balance for vertigo. As you do them, start out slowly and gradually try to do the exercise for a longer time or do more repetitions.
- Level 2 exercises may help to improve balance for vertigo and may reduce vertigo symptoms. As you do them, start out slowly and gradually try to do the exercise for a longer time or for more repetitions.
You can track your progress for these exercises. Prepare a list that shows the date, the time you spent exercising, how often your eyes were open or closed, and how you felt during each exercise.
- You can also do walking exercises for vertigo, which may improve your balance and symptoms of vertigo. A specific start/stop method is used to improve your balance.
You can track your progress for walking exercises. Prepare a list that shows the distance you walked, how often you walked, and how you felt while you were walking.
Current as of: December 2, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
Anne C. Poinier MD – Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD – Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD – Internal Medicine
Current as of: December 2, 2020
Medical Review: Anne C. Poinier MD – Internal Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD – Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson MD – Internal Medicine
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