As wobbly toddlers, we worked hard to improve our balance and propel ourselves forward efficiently. We got even better at balancing as kids, thanks to skipping, climbing trees, doing somersaults and simply being active. But as adults, most of us have stopped doing those spontaneous movements. Instead, we spend a lot of our time sitting—during our commute, at our desk, on the couch. The result: Our legs, low back, and butt become weaker—and our balance suffers.
A more sedentary lifestyle isn't the only thing to blame. Parts of the inner ear and brain that control balance—what's called the vestibular system—and vision decline as we get older, which has a big effect on our equilibrium. It’s a gradual slowdown that may take years or even decades to notice. Maybe it’s become a little harder to make lateral movements on the tennis court, or you feel less stable as you head down stairs. Or maybe you're feeling too precarious in high heels these days. Feeling more confident about these and other everyday movements, like getting in and out of the car or watering the garden, is exactly why balance training is so important.
Good balance contributes to what's called "felt sense" or proprioception—which refers to how you carry your body as you move. When you improve proprioception you're able to move more easily throughout the day while decreasing the chance of tripping or getting injured. Stability is a big part of that: While you want to be able to hold the filled watering can without any trouble (which calls on strength), it’s crucial that the muscles in your abs, hips, back and buttocks are also contracting and stabilizing so you won't topple over while you tilt the can over the flowers (which requires stability).
It’s those postural muscles that you can strengthen to improve and maintain your balance over time. It does take practice, but committing yourself to doing some simple movements (somersaults not included) every day can make a big difference.
Five Ways to Improve Your Balance
Remember, physical balance is a dynamic state, requiring continuous, coordinated adjustments. Think back to when you learned how to ride a bicycle: At first you made constant and deliberate corrections on the pedals, but as you continued to ride, your corrections became subtler and less conscious as healthy neuromuscular patterns established themselves. Keep this learning curve in mind as you take on balance-boosting activities.
Practice yoga. Whether you take a class or practice at home, holding yoga poses naturally challenges and improves your sense of balance. You’re engaging various muscle groups and moving your body in a way that requires control. Even some of the simplest postures, like Mountain Pose (standing tall with your feet together, arms at your sides and palms facing forward), can help strengthen your balance as you practice remaining still.
Close your eyes. It’s harder to balance without the sensory data you get when your eyes are open. Try closing them when you’re in a safe place, like in a seated pose in a yoga or Pilates class. Let your body find its center without the guidance of your vision; give yourself a few minutes here. If you feel comfortable, you can also try closing your eyes while standing or in a pose like Warrior II (a forward lunge with your front toes facing forward, your back leg straight, back foot perpendicular to your mat and your arms raised to shoulder height and parallel to the floor) where you still have the support of both feet on the ground.
Strengthen your core. Building the muscles in the center of your body helps you feel centered too. And while improving your posture is really a behavioral practice, having a strong core can encourage you to stand tall and allows you to better control your muscles, making you more likely to regain your balance if you slip. Plus, when you can rely on the support of your core, everyday balance tasks like carrying the laundry or picking up your child are done with ease. Try a Pilates workout, which focuses on the core muscles in your back, abdomen and lower body, or consider these other core-strengthening options.
Stand on one foot. While you’re brushing your teeth, washing dishes or going through the mail at the kitchen counter, lift one foot off the ground. You may feel unsteady at first, or even need to grab the counter for support, but with practice, your balance will improve. Switch feet after 30 to 60 seconds.
Try new tools. You can also hone your balance by standing on a Bosu®ball or balance board, which requires you to control your muscles on an unstable surface. Increase the challenge by doing simple exercises, such as biceps curls, while balancing on these pieces of equipment.
Practice agility drills. Your ability to change directions easily while moving is another aspect of balance. Performing some active exercises (as opposed to static balance moves) can be a great addition to your training. Try:
- High Knee Ladder Drill: If you have access to an agility ladder, lay it flat on the floor in front of you with one end near your feet. You can also lay pieces of yarn or string on the ground to create a ladder-like frame. Once you’re ready, start a high-knee jump through each square of the ladder (or between the pieces of yarn), alternating legs and raising each knee to hip height as you move through the course. Once you reach the end, turn around and go back, repeating the same technique. Concentrating on jumping between each ladder rung challenges your balance.
- Balloon Drill: Get two different colored balloons (or inflatable beach balls) and toss one in the air, followed by the other, hitting them with your hands to keep them in the air. You can choose to do this with a partner as well. Trying not to let them drop will challenge your body to move in different directions. For an added challenge, try doing a squat in between hitting each balloon. Do this exercise for at least one minute.