Finding Balance, Literally: The Best Exercises to Tune Up Your Equilibrium
May 20, 2015 | Home and Family
Balance issues and falls are often associated with the elderly, but deteriorating balance often begins much younger. Sitting in too many meetings, skipping workouts, even concentrating on just one sport all contribute to muscle loss that can lead to balance issues.
“As your activity decreases and muscles get weak, they start to be less responsive,” says Anne K. Galgon, PhD, a clinical specialist in neurological physical therapy and an assistant professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.“ Particularly the muscles around the ankle, which control front-to-back balance, and the hip abductors, which control side-to-side balance.” She points out that as people age, they tend to walk with their legs further apart, creating a wider base of support.
Fortunately, there are lots of activities you can perform to get balance back in your life. For younger people, that can translate to more confidence and better performance on the basketball court or ski hill. For seniors, better balance means avoiding falls, which can be the difference between remaining independent or needing assistance with activities of daily living.
For any age, Galgon recommends beginning with what she calls “kitchen counter exercises.” They can be done whenever you have time throughout the day and anywhere there is a ledge to hold for support and balance. As you progress through the exercises and rebuild muscle, decrease the amount you hold on, until your hands hover just above the surface.
- Rise up on your toes, then slowly lower your heel to the ground. Repeat 10 times.
- Putting your weight on your heels, lift your toes off the ground; then slowly return your toes to the ground. Repeat 10 times.
- As you gain strength and confidence, try this on an uneven surface (such as a towel or pillow), put one foot behind the other, or lift one foot off the ground.
Hip Abductor Exercises
- Stand on one leg and raise the other leg out to the side, keeping your toes pointing forward. Repeat 10 times.
- As you gain strength and confidence, increase the amount of time you hold the leg out.
“Many people who have a problem with balance may have trouble getting out of a chair. Mini-squats will work the muscles in the quadriceps and gluteals,” says Galgon.
- Sit in a secure chair with arms, then stand up and sit back down. Repeat 10 times.
- Use the arms as little as possible as you advance through the exercise.
Exercises that strengthen the core muscles in your abdomen and back can help you be more aware of your center of mass—the area just behind the belly button—and how you adjust it during movement to maintain stability.
- Sit on an exercise ball and shift your weight from front to back and side to side to help enhance your balance.
- Lift one leg off the ground or move your arms to increase the level of difficulty.
“Just walking is good for balance,” Galgon says. “Look from side to side or change up your speed from time to time. Control your balance by doing something else on top of walking,” such as moving your arms. Take a path that requires adjusting to inclines and declines with your legs and center of gravity.
When It’s More Than Just Muscles
For many people, poor balance is the result of more than just underused muscles. Dizziness, vertigo and lightheadedness can all be symptoms of several serious conditions, including diseases of the inner ears or eyes, stroke, cardiovascular or pulmonary disease, and even anxiety. Always consult your doctor if you have severe dizziness.
In many cases, good balance can be reclaimed with the help of a vestibular physical therapist. For instance, about a third of all dizziness complaints are due to benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, or BPPV for short. BPPV is caused when crystals in the inner ear deteriorate and move, causing irritation to balance systems. Vestibular PTs can perform maneuvers to reposition the crystals and even teach you to perform them at home in case the BPPV reoccurs.
The American Physical Therapy Association’s Vestibular Rehabilitation Special Interest Group has more than 4,000 member PTs who have received advanced training in balance issues. You can find a specialist in your area at the provider directory of the Vestibular Disorders Association. For more information about vestibular rehab, including patient fact sheets, visit the APTA’s Neurology Section.
Whether you’re heading out to the golf course this spring or trying to help your mom and dad maintain their independence, remember that tuning up your balance will pay off in the long run.