Do you worry about your balance? Does your sense of balance (or lack of it) stop you from doing things you love? Read on… I have some simple steps to help you!
TL;DR: Don’t love reading and want to head straight for the exercises? Click here to go straight to the movement tutorial! You get the video at the end of the blog too, so no need to rush if you like the written detail😄
So. How do we build better balance?
We address two components of balance and fall protection:
1 Exercises that wake up, mobilise and strengthen the body parts involved in balance (including your eyes, weirdly)
2 Movements that mimic falling and that increase your sense of competence, safety and ability to respond if you do start to lose your balance.
Let’s start with the body parts, from bottom to top:
Feet and toes.
Daily rolling sessions and toe spreading and lifting are great for getting more responsive feet.
If your feet are better able to sense the ground, you are less likely to be tripped up by changes in terrain.
Foot exercises are one way to do that.
Wearing minimal shoes that allow for better ground feel is another good way to have better connection to your feet and the surfaces you walk on.
You can learn all about minimal shoes here at Anya’s Shoe Reviews!
Ankles and calves
Have you ever “gone over” on your ankles? It can be quite the event!
Having strong muscles in your calves and around your ankles is a good protective measure.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you tend to be stiff and less mobile around your ankles, it’s harder to recover if you do start to fall. We want lots of ability to respond to quickly changing positions!
Making sure you can both bend and straighten your knees is another movement that helps diminish the chance of falling AND makes it easier to recover your balance. Releasing excess tension in your thighs is a great strategy here.
Oh, boy are your hips ever important in balance work!
We want strong lateral hips (side butt is the super technical term) to help stabilise your side-to-side motion and to help you clear your swing foot off the ground. We want strong glutes to help swing your leg back and prevent you from shuffling (this is connected to your big toe mobility, FYI). We want your deep hip muscles to keep your legs beautifully organised in your hip sockets so they can both create motion and respond to changes in position and load smoothly and easily.
Like every other muscle in your body, a strong core can both contract and release tension and can react to different loads and positions. Unfortunately, many of us have ab-clenching habits that make reflexive core action harder to achieve. And that’s what we really want if we start to fall! A reflexive response in your trunk muscles that don’t require any kind of direction from you. Who has time to say to themselves “ok, left obliques, psoas and back muscles all need to contract to absorb my body weight because I’m falling to the right” while they’re actually in the process of falling? Nobody! We just need our bodies to act.
Shoulders? Really? Yes!
If you start to fall it’s really helpful if you can smoothly and easily swing your arms around to provide counterbalance. Not to mention, having good shoulder function is going to make it easier to be upright, have smooth arm swing and prevent you from losing your balance in the first place.
Wrist strength and mobility isn’t going to add to your balance, I admit. But it’s a good thing to add in for injury protection if you do go down! It’s helpful to be able to absorb your landing well with a combination of wrist, elbow and shoulder motion.
Another surprise addition to your balance toolkit!
About 20 % of the eye neural tracts (the neural fibres that connect from your brain to your eyes) have to do with your vestibular system and that means your eyes affect your balance.
Giving your eye muscles a workout is a great way to support your balance and coordination (as well as reducing headaches as a nice side benefit).
Dynamic Balance Challenges
Please note: you do NOT have to spend time on a BOSU, wobble board or other instability tool to improve your balance, especially if it makes you feel dizzy or unsafe. There are other ways, including all the exercises noted above!
One of the things that’s very helpful in improving your balance, decreasing your chance of falling and increasing your capacity to manage if you do start to topple is to practice the sensation of falling in a safe and planned environment.
Your brain and nervous system don’t like the sensation of falling, of course. If you practice it, and have a sense of confidence and familiarity with the process of regaining your balance then you’re less likely to freeze up and more likely to take effective action, regain your footing and carry on with your day. And the more often you do that, the more you enhance a brain pattern of confidence and competence!
Click here for a 2 minute exploration of the dynamic balance challenge games below!
**If your balance is already challenged, please do these exercises close to a wall so you can put your attention on the confidence part**
Start by changing what you stand on. A folded up towel gives your feet a chance to feel for and adapt to something softer and more malleable than the floor.
Here’s another place to use your eyes to enhance your balance and stability. Closing one eye at a time and then closing both eyes definitely challenges your balance without actually being out in the world!
Play around with something you have to pay attention to in addition to keeping steady on your feet. Throw a ball back and forth, change your eye focus (ooh, look, eyes again!), rub your head and your belly in opposite directions. If you feel like stepping it up a notch, choose something that takes your feet off the floor like touching your left foot to your right hand in front of you, then behind you.
Lunge in all directions, catching yourself as you go. That gives your muscles a chance to work at catching you and your brain a chance to be familiar with the feeling of both falling and not-falling.
You can do this at the wall or on the floor, depending on your comfort level.
Stand in front of the wall and lean forward until you tip, then catch yourself with your hands. The closer you are to the wall, the less load/impact you have to manage. FInd the sweet spot where you feel safe but a little bit challenged!
The next version is to kneel on the floor and lean forward until you start to fall and again then catch yourself with your hands. You want this to be a very controlled experiment, so avoid flopping or collapsing. Pretend there’s a stretchy band behind you keeping your movement super slow and graceful. If you want to, you could actually have a band around your middle attached to something solid behind you or a person to hold it!
Note: if you have osteoporosis you want to be sure of a soft landing on your hands as you learn to do this. Using that folded towel is good as well as being very conscious of gradually folding each of your joints so there’s nothing jerky about your landing.
Looking for more detail on all this, including a printable exercise list? Here’s my free Build Better Balance mini-course!
Want to be able to ask questions and get my help in refining your moves? Register for my upcoming Build Better Balance online workshop on Saturday Feb 26 from 2-4 EST. It’s a livestream event if you can make it in person, with a replay that’s yours forever if you can’t. Includes a printable exercise list you can put on your fridge, because the best exercises are the ones you do regularly.
Here’s to you, your balance and the fun, confident and amazing things you do in your life. xo Alison