Strengthen muscles to improve balance and stability
Some adults become less stable on their feet as they get older, but losing a sense of balance isn’t an inevitable part of aging. Exercising to improve stability while strengthening core muscles may help older adults remain independent, living on their own terms.
“The core isn’t just defined as the abdominal muscles but all of the stabilizer muscles throughout the trunk and pelvis that support the functional things we do throughout the day — standing from a chair, walking, bending to pick something up, twisting, carrying, and reaching overhead,” says Kimberly Smith, a physical therapist at the Athletico Niles/NW Chicago Clinic.
Without a good sense of balance, people may have trouble rising from a seated position, using the bathroom independently, or navigating their home on their own.
“It’s important to improve strength and flexibility but also agility or the ability to react fast, which leads to improved balance and stability,” says Tanvi Bhatt, PhD, associate professor of physical therapy and director of the Cognitive, Motor and Balance Rehabilitation Laboratory at the University of Illinois Chicago.
“You really need all of these for independent functional activities of daily living that we take for granted — like getting up from a chair or reaching an overhead cabinet. If you can’t get up from your chair, or if you’re not able to maintain balance and stability while doing that, you could repeatedly fall,” she says.
Improving balance also helps to boost confidence in avoiding falls.
“Just the fear of falling can lead to less movement and a decline in overall health,” says Shane Rhoads, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of the fitness studio Movement Med Chicago. “Simply put, better balance equals continued independence.”
Exercises to improve balance
To improve your balance, try the following exercises, which Bhatt’s team recommends in its fall-prevention community outreach activities. Hold onto a sink, counter, or ledge for stable support, rather than a chair, which may move when you put your weight on it.
1. One-leg stand
Stand facing a ledge or the kitchen sink, holding on with both hands. Stand on your right leg, engage your core muscles, and bend your left knee so you’re lifting your left foot behind you. Hold for five seconds, then return your foot to the ground. Repeat five times, then switch legs and repeat. As your balance improves, hold the counter with one hand or let go of the ledge.
2. Heel raise
Face the kitchen sink or counter, holding on with both hands. Lift both heels, keeping your toes on the ground. Engage your core muscles and hold for five seconds, then return your heels to the ground. Repeat 10 times. As you improve your balance, hold the counter with one hand or let go of the ledge entirely.
3. Side leg raise
While facing the counter or kitchen sink, hold on with both hands. Slowly lift your right leg out to the side. Hold for one second, then return your foot to the starting position. Repeat five times, then switch to your left leg and repeat. As your balance improves, place only one hand on the counter or don’t hold on at all.
4. Step forward, step backward
Stand with your right side facing the ledge or counter and hold on with your right hand. Step forward with your left leg, shifting your weight forward over your left foot and bending your left knee. Keep ball of right foot on the ground. Return left leg to the starting position. Repeat five times. Turn so your left side faces the counter and repeat, stepping forward with your right leg five times.
Next, with your right side facing the counter, step back with your left leg. Shift your weight behind you over your left foot. Return to the starting position and repeat five times. Turn so your left side faces the counter and repeat, stepping with your right leg. As your balance improves, hold the counter only with your fingertips.