Falls are the leading cause of fatal injuries for the elderly. That’s why balance training is such an important part of my senior fitness programs as a personal trainer. You never know when you will need it.
Just a few weeks ago I got my memo. I was at the kitchen counter preparing lunch and never noticed that my cat had quietly slipped in and lay on the floor behind me. All I know is that when I started turning around and shifted my weight to step back from the counter, the next series of events could have been likened to a gym training session. I’m not sure how I managed to stay upright and not step on my cat, but I’m sure he had everything to do with my fall prevention / balance training.
In my experience, the training needed to really improve balance for seniors is not as simple as practicing standing on one leg. It is about working on the mechanics of your whole body. It involves using movement or physical activity to improve posture alignment, which then strengthens better balance and helps prevent falls.
Athletes are a great example of body mechanics work. Their goal is to get stronger, faster and have more stamina to practice their sport better. For them, anything that is out of alignment – posture, joints, or muscles that can affect their movement – could cause loss of efficiency, pain, or injury. You may think you have nothing in common with a trained athlete, but poor body mechanics cause the same problems in us. Anything that is not properly aligned (especially posture) can cause pain and stiffness, impair balance, cause injury, and make movement more difficult throughout the day.
Self-test for the evaluation of equilibrium
Most of the seniors I talk to freely admit that their balance needs work. But in case you’re unsure, I’ve included a quick self-test so you can check your current balance. The test is very easy to perform and is actually an activity from a larger test assessment.
Keep in mind that a full balance test would require someone to walk you through a series of activities to make a full assessment.
For the self-test:
- Stand with your feet together.
- Cross your arms across your chest.
- When you feel ready, close your eyes.
The goal is to hold this position for a full 30 seconds.
The test is finished, even if not all 30 seconds have elapsed, if:
- Move or lift your feet, even slightly
- You start swaying
- Move your arms
- Open your eyes
- It was not possible to close my eyes to complete step 3
If you have not been able to exceed 30 seconds or are feeling too unstable with your feet together and your eyes closed, start with the first version of the following exercises. Consider using the self-test periodically to check your balance and note your progress as you begin practicing your balance exercises.
Let’s start by correcting the most common body mechanics problem I’ve noticed while exercising for the elderly. It’s super easy to learn and will make practicing the exercises easier.
Note: do not take any risks that can cause you to fall while doing these exercises. Perform the exercises while keeping (or, for more advanced versions, within reach of) a sturdy chair, stable counter, or other type of furniture that will not fall, shift, or collapse when used for support.
Exercise n. 1: stable position
Stable position is the first move I review with all my clients. It is a specific placement of your feet with weight distribution that creates a solid base. This is an easy way to create a support base so that you are instantly more stable and not feel unbalanced. On a typical day, you will find dozens of times to practice.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart or slightly wider, toes pointing forward and keeping your torso straight, without leaning forward or back, using good posture.
- Bend your knees slightly, contracting your thigh muscles (quadriceps), lower abs and glutes. You are now in a stable position.
Using the stable position lowers the center of gravity, makes you more stable. It also helps you activate your core muscles, making you stronger. You can use the stable position while performing almost any standing activity, especially if you are doing resistance training. Just be sure and practice correct posture at the same time.
Exercise n. 2: March alternating with three counts
- Stand up straight with good posture while using a stable stance.
- Stand next to a chair or counter and hold firm with one hand, lifting your right knee as high as what feels comfortable for you, shifting your weight onto your standing left leg.
- Keep the right knee balanced on the left leg for a count of three, keeping the thigh muscle of the left leg taut while keeping the knee slightly bent.
- Lower your right leg, placing your right foot shoulder-width apart, so that you return to a stable position.
- Switch legs, raising the left knee and shifting the weight to balance on the right leg and holding the left knee up for a count of three.
- Repeat the march eight times, or four on each side.
- To make it more difficult, add more repetitions (the number of gears) up to 20, or try doing the gears without holding back. Stay close to something stable, however, in case you lose your balance.
- To make this an advanced move, start with your right arm straight over your head. He lowers his right elbow to meet his right knee as he climbs. He does 8-15 reps on the right side, switch and repeat with the left side.
The proprioceptors, or censors in the nerve endings that help maintain balance, take some time to kick in. Being on one leg for the first try can make you feel very unstable. Many times it takes up to four attempts for the proprioceptors to activate, so please don’t be discouraged after the first try. The more you challenge your balance, the better it will start to feel.
Exercise n. 3: one side front side to side
- Stand up straight with good posture while using a stable stance.
- Stand sideways to a chair or counter and hold firm with one hand.
- Step forward with your right foot, using a stride length that feels comfortable for you, shifting your weight onto your right leg as you step.
- Using the ball of your right foot, push yourself back to step back with your right foot using a comfortable stride length.
- Repeat this step back and forth 4 times, then switch to the left leg.
- To make it harder, add more reps up to 20, don’t hold back or increase the length of your steps back and forth.
- To make this an advanced move, bend your knees and turn the steps into a lunge. Keep your arms at 90 degrees and swing them back and forth as you lunge.
Make sure that when you step back and forth that your feet are still shoulder-width apart, maintaining that stable stance. You can use a strip of duct tape on the floor as a guide to make sure you don’t let your feet start getting too close and losing your balance.
Exercise n. 4: Alternate side jump
- Stand tall and straight with good posture and a stable stance.
- Stand with a stable chair or counter in front of you and hold firm with one hand.
- Lift your right leg to the side to the height of what makes you feel comfortable; at the same time bring your right arm above your head.
- Switch to the left side, bringing your left leg and left arm above your head at the same time, swapping the hand you hold with.
- Repeat each side 4 times.
- To make it more difficult, add more reps up to 20, or don’t hold back and speed up the tempo of your movements.
Tips for professionals
Exercises that involve having your arms above your head help improve posture by strengthening the muscles that hold the shoulder blades down.
Also, moving an arm, leg, or even your torso while trying to balance on one leg will cause you to swing and shift your body weight to avoid falling. This is good because it helps activate and strengthen the core muscles. It also makes proprioceptors more sensitive to variations and changes similar to what happens when you start to fall. As a side benefit, more active proprioceptors can help improve your reflexes.
As with any exercise program, consult with your doctor or physician before beginning. Certain medications, illnesses, hearing loss, and other physical limitations may make it more difficult for you to practice balance.