Can I improve my balance with exercise? This is a question asked by people in many circumstances. I was once asked this question by a woman who was recovering from a stroke. She was young, had experienced multiple strokes, and didn’t have good balance. She wanted to improve her physical fitness, but she was worried about her ability to do so. Whether you too are a stroke victim, have osteoporosis, are an older adult, have MS, are pregnant, or just feel unsteady on your feet, know that exercise can help improve your balance!
So what is the best exercise strategy for better balance? There are many types of exercise that will help you improve your balance, but whatever you choose to do, here are a few tips you should focus on as you start your balance training program.
- Balance the left and right sides of your body. Since most of us prefer one side over the other, we are often stronger and more coordinated on the preferred, or dominant side. While our ability to write or kick a soccer ball might not improve much on the non-dominant side, we can improve our strength, endurance, and stabilization.
Try performing resistance training exercises with only one arm or one leg at a time to see if you can lift more weight with one side compared to the other. If this is the case, be sure to spend a little extra time training the weaker side. Just like a tug-of-war, the stronger side will pull the rest of you in that direction and can offset your balance. Keeping the strength of your right and left sides equal will improve your ability to balance while performing daily tasks.
- Start with a wide base of support. I am sure you have experienced the destabilizing effect of moving from standing on both feet to standing on one foot. As you begin your exercise program, make sure you are engaging in activities that have both feet on the ground, spread to shoulder width. As your balance improves you can begin to narrow your base of support, try moving exercises, and even work your way to a single-leg balance.
- Engage in balance activities. Weight training is a great way to improve your muscular strength and endurance and help balance your muscle tone. Other great exercises include Pilates, Yoga, and Tai Chi. There are also more advanced balance programs that use unstable bases like Bosu balls and exercise balls. While these are great to try if you are feeling very comfortable with your balance on a solid surface and are wanting to improve from there, they can be more dangerous, especially for individuals who have troubles with balance.
- Proceed with caution. To add to number 2 on our list, make sure you start your exercise program using the best techniques for improved balance. This means using the wide base of support mentioned above. You should also try to get your center of gravity low and centered. Movements that cause you to raise your arms up high or shift side to side can cause you to lose your balance. If you can perform movements closer to the ground and centered in front of you, you will be more stable. If you would like to perform side to side movements or an exercise that requires you to balance on one foot or on an unstable surface, use a balance aid like a chair, or a spotter like a trainer, a therapist, or a friend.
Also, as you start to incorporate aerobic activity, start with exercises like recumbent biking, rowing, and elliptical. These machines don’t require as much balance and provide support while still getting the aerobic benefit. Gradually work your way into unsupported aerobic exercises.
- Practice. Just like with anything else, balance takes practice. Practice specific balance activities like Tai Chi and Pilates, but also practice activities like walking, jogging, throwing a ball, kicking a ball, reaching to put dishes in the cupboard, bending to pick things up off the floor, or whatever other skills you need and want for your everyday life. Use functional movements that you perform every day in your exercise training to improve your overall balance.