For many, we may not think about adding balance to our exercise routine until we start to notice a decline, but waiting until then can be too late. For the average healthy adult, it is recommended to do balance exercises greater than or equal to 2-3 days per week, for about 20-30 minutes per time, incorporating single-leg standing challenges, change in base of support, or integrating it into other forms of exercise such as strength or flexibility training. Again, we may think it’s the aging adult or those at risk for falls who should focus most on balance, but in reality, we all should be. The more we do early on to practice balance, hopefully, the longer it is maintained, decreasing long-term risk of falls or injuries.
When doing any balance-based exercise, it’s important to have a safe environment. Chairs or stable objects can be helpful to use as additional support. When ready to start, it can be helpful to allow hands to hold on the back of a chair. With progress, decrease to one hand, then fingers, and then fingertips until you no longer need the support. Avoid nearby sharp objects or objects left on the floor around feet, in case of the need to step down or reach out for support.
Here are a few exercises to start adding to your regular exercise routine, or incorporating into your daily life.
Single-leg balance with knee raise
Start to slowly lift the non-balance leg off the ground. Keep the hips and shoulder square, facing forward, and in line. After the initial lift-off, feel free to toe-tap the non-balance leg or step to both feet on the ground whenever needed. As you gain balance and progress, try to hold for longer periods, and eventually raise the foot higher off the ground, bringing the knee to about hip height. Hands can be placed at the hip, shoulders, extended straight out of the shoulder, or forearms overlapped holding elbows out in front of the chest about shoulder height. Aim to practice for the same time on both legs, building up to 10-30 seconds. Feel free to repeat about 2-5 times.
Warrior I and warrior II
Yoga and Tai Chi practice can be a great influence in balance training, but also for our flexibility, mindfulness, and stress management. These traditional yoga poses are a great way to challenge balance with a change in base of support, meaning both feet get to be on the ground.
Warrior I – Take a large step forward with one foot. Options for challenge are to make your feet planted in the same line like on a tight rope (harder), or to spread your feet apart like you’re on two skis (easier), with both feet always having toes pointing straight ahead. Hips and shoulders are square and facing forward like the toes. With the forward-stepping foot, start to bend the front knee, tracking in line with the toes/feet directly below. Don’t go past the toes. The back foot and heel should try to stay glued or close to the ground. Push hard into the floor with your whole foot and squeeze the inner thighs. You can hold hands at the hips, and as you begin to progress for more challenge, start to lift the arms overhead, pulling shoulder blades down and back to line up with the spine and with biceps close the ears.
Warrior II – From Warrior I, the front foot might turn out just slightly, and the back foot will turn to be about perpendicular to the front foot so that if heels were touching you’d make a right angle. Continue to bend the front knee toward the front toe with the thought of the thigh eventually becoming parallel to the floor (you don’t have to get there or maybe you will with time and practice). Hips start to turn out with the turn of the back foot. Stretch arms out straight from the shoulder, with one arm extending over the front knee, and the other arm 180 degrees from the front, extending out behind you. Hold these poses for 10-30 seconds and begin to increase your length or depth of the pose with time. Make sure to hold for equal time and do reps on each foot to hit both sides.
Single-leg options for other exercises (i.e., calf raise or squat)
Many of your go-to exercises can have a balance challenge added to them. Traditional calf raises can be done on a single leg, maybe with a chair back or close to a wall so that if needed, one hand can reach out for extra support. Squats can also be turned into a single-leg exercise, by pulling one leg off the ground and holding the raised foot in front or behind the balance leg. It is encouraged to not go as deep as a traditional squat but to more of a depth around 45 degrees. As you stand from the squat, aim to really squeeze the quads and glutes to come to a full stand with hips under shoulders. Other exercises like standing glute extensions, leg swings, knee raises, or deadlifts can all be done with a single leg option. Consider decreases in weights, sets, and reps if trying one of these for the first time.
Core stabilizers – planks, bird/dogs, bridges
Learning to properly embrace and stabilize the body at the core is a big benefit to balance and minimizing or reducing back pain. Core stabilizing exercises often work a few to all four major muscle groups from the most superficial to the deepest layer of core muscles at the same time. These positions require that the belly button be pulled toward the spine and slightly up. Think of bracing with the core like putting on a pair of jeans that are just too tight, but don’t forget while holding these contractions you still have to breathe. Several of these positions can be held for time or with sets and reps.
It might seem intimidating to think of an additional 20-30 minutes of your exercise routine be focused just on balance. However, the beauty is how it can be integrated into other forms of exercise. So don’t think you have to balance for 10 minutes on one leg then the other. Incorporate it into small chunks of time while you brush your teeth, stand at the kitchen counter, or into your other routines of strength and flexibility. Remember if you feel like you need more balance work, you probably should have started it a few years ago. No need to fret, it’s never too late to start, but it’s also never too early.
Kimberly Burke is the director of the Adult Fitness Program at Colorado State University, an outreach program through the Department of Health and Exercise Science. Adult Fitness offers exercise opportunities for employees of CSU as well as community members while providing hands-on learning experiences for health promotion students. To learn more see the Adult Fitness Program website.