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Maintaining Stability: A Guide to Balancing Exercises for Seniors

Balancing can seem effortless when you’re young. You might hop on one foot to pull on a pair of pants, walk downstairs without giving the handrail a second thought or hike on a trail covered in loose stones or gravel, confident in your footing.

But as you get older, balancing can be more challenging. That’s because your muscles may get weaker, your joints may be less flexible, your vision might not be as strong and your perception of what’s around you can change. You may also have arthritis, neurological disorders or inner ear problems.

“Balance is challenging for a lot of people, but especially for seniors. And balance is essential for our mobility. It helps us with walking, picking things up from the floor and being independent,” said Joseph Davis, a physical therapist with Banner Health.

You can take steps to maintain and even improve your balance. And better balance is important. It doesn't just prevent falls. It can help you stay active and independent. It can help you feel confident, have less anxiety and be in control of your life. 

Exercises that strengthen your muscles, improve your coordination and boost your awareness of where your body is in space can build your balance, reduce your risk of falls and help you maintain the lifestyle you want. They can help you become more flexible and agile so you can move more comfortably and confidently. 

“Balancing exercises include anything that disrupts your balance by reducing your base of support, decreasing your vision or having to use your muscles to stabilize your body,” Davis said. “They work by changing your body’s ability to adjust to where you are in space.”

Here are some balancing exercises you can try. “There is no perfect exercise, but if you find a position that makes you wobble and put effort into keeping yourself balanced for up to 30 seconds without holding onto something, that is an easy and effective start,” Davis said.

Be sure to talk to your health care provider if you have any concerns about performing these exercises or need guidance on how to modify them. They can help you find safe, effective exercises.

Heel-to-toe walk 

  1. Stand with your feet in a straight line, placing the heel of one foot directly in front of the toes of the other. 
  2. Stand up straight and take small steps, placing the heel of each foot directly in front of the toes of the other foot. 
  3. Focus on a fixed point ahead of you to help with balance. 
  4. Repeat for 10 to 15 steps, gradually increasing as you feel more comfortable. 

One-legged stand

  1. Stand next to a sturdy chair or countertop that you can hold for support. 
  2. Lift one leg off the ground, bending it at the knee. 
  3. Hold the position for 10 to 15 seconds, then switch to the other leg. 
  4. Gradually increase the time you stand on one leg as your balance improves. 

Toe taps

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart. 
  2. Lift one foot slightly off the ground and tap your toes on the floor. 
  3. Return your foot to the starting position. 
  4. Repeat with the other leg. 
  5. Continue alternating for 10 to 15 taps on each side. 
  6. Gradually increase the number of repetitions.

Side leg lifts 

  1. Stand next to a chair or countertop that you can hold for support. 
  2. Lift one leg out to the side while keeping it straight. 
  3. Hold for a moment, then lower the leg back down. 
  4. Repeat with the other leg. 
  5. Aim for 10 to 15 repetitions on each side. 
  6. Gradually increase the number of repetitions.

Chair squats 

  1. Stand in front of a sturdy chair with your feet shoulder-width apart. 
  2. Lower your body towards the chair as if you were sitting down. 
  3. Stop before sitting and return to the starting position. 
  4. Repeat for 10 to 15 squats. 
  5. Gradually increase the number of repetitions. 

Wall push-ups 

  • Stand facing a wall at arms-length from the wall, with your arms extended in front of you at shoulder height. 
  • Lean towards the wall, performing a push-up motion. 
  • Push back to the starting position. 
  • Repeat for 10 to 15 repetitions. 
  • Gradually increase the number of repetitions.

Tai Chi can also be a good option for improving your balance, as well as your flexibility and relaxation. Tai Chi movements include weight shifts, controlled arm movements and slow, deliberate steps. You can get started by joining a class in your area or following an online video.

General strengthening exercises may also help improve your balance. “Strengthening exercises require you to use your muscles in specific patterns and movements that can help you stand from chairs, walk more easily and complete other daily activities. Working on your strength can have a great effect on your safety and function,” Davis said.

Building a balance habit

When you practice balance regularly, you should begin to see improvements. Start with a few minutes a day and add to the time as you become stronger and more comfortable and build muscle memory.

These tips can help you fit balance practice into your day:

  • Begin your morning with a few minutes of balancing exercises.
  • When you’re watching TV, perform some toe taps, side leg lifts or chair squats.
  • Add some heel-to-toe walking to your daily walks.
  • Stand on one leg while you’re preparing food or brushing your teeth.
  • Wind down before bed with some relaxing balance exercises.

Tips for staying safe

Before you exercise, take a minute to make sure your space is safe. You’ll want to do your balancing exercises on a stable surface. That way, you can focus on the movements without concerns about slipping or falling.

Stand on a flat, stable surface like a non-slip mat or a carpet. Use a sturdy chair or a countertop for support. Even if you don’t feel like you need to hold onto something, having support close by just in case can help you perform your exercises with confidence.

Make sure there aren’t any loose rugs or cords that you could trip on, and exercise in a well-lit area so you can easily see your surroundings.

“If you have any serious balance concerns, consult a physical therapist or another health care provider. Safety is important with balance, because the only way to improve your balance is to make you feel off balance,” Davis said.

“If you grab the walls or furniture for support when you walk around the house, or you’ve fallen more than three times in the last 12 months, you may want to get advice from a provider,” Davis said. “If you have concerns about your balance and you feel it limits your ability to care for yourself or the freedom you have to walk and move, physical therapy and balance training can help.”

The bottom line

Good balance is an important part of staying healthy, active and independent as you get older. But changes in your muscle strength, flexibility, vision and sense of your body in space can make it harder to stay balanced. Adding balancing exercises to your routine can help you maintain your ability and move through life with confidence.

If you would like personalized tips for improving your balance and staying independent, talk to a physical therapist or another health care provider. Reach out to connect with a Banner Health expert

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