We often don’t think much about balance — until we start to lose it. When I see new clients over the age of 55, many of them tell me they’re looking for fitness coaching, in part because they feel their balance has slowly but steadily declined.
Lack of balance is a big contributor to falls in later life, which can have devastating effects, including loss of mobility and loss of independence. The good news is you can improve your balance at any age. Research indicates that with appropriate exercise training older adults can improve their balance and strength.
By improving your balance, you’ll also perform better in your chosen sports (especially cycling, tennis, squash, golf and swimming), and you’ll be at lower risk for injury in your day-to-day activities. The three moves below will get you started.
1. Single Leg Deadlifts
In addition to improving your balance, this exercise strengthens your hamstrings and core.
Stand with your arms at your sides, with your right foot a few inches off the floor. Keeping your left knee very slightly bent, lean forward onto your left leg, raising your right leg behind you and reaching toward the floor with your hands. Your head, back and right leg should form a straight line, parallel to the ground. Hold for a second and slowly return to the start position. Complete repetitions, then switch sides. Start with 3 sets of 5 repetitions on each leg, progressing to 3 sets of 10 repetitions as your balance and strength improve.
2. Reverse Lunges
Lunges create stability in your core, as well as all of the working joints in your lower body (like your knee and ankle joints). They also strengthen your quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves. The reverse lunge is a more knee-friendly exercise than forward lunges. That’s why I use this version with older adults who have knee pain or want to protect their joints.
Stand upright with your hands on your hips. Step backward with your right leg, dropping your right knee toward the ground and bending your left knee to 90 degrees. Make sure your left knee is stacked directly over your ankle, and not moving to either side. Press through your left heel and return your right leg to the start position. Repeat repetitions, then switch sides.
Once you can perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions on each leg, try this variation: Instead of returning your back leg to meet your front leg in the start position, lift your leg from behind you toward your chest, with knee bent at 90 degrees, then step back into your next lunge.
3. Single Leg Chair Squats
The full version of this exercise is more challenging than it might seem, so I have my clients start with just the lowering phase of the move before progressing to the full movement. All my clients perform this exercise – it’s that effective. My older clients, in particular, note its ability to not only improve balance, but also single-leg strength, which carries over into activities like running, hiking and even getting up from a low chair.
Start by standing about a foot in front of a sturdy chair, facing away from the chair. Lift your left leg off the floor, keeping it straight. Slowly, over a count of about 4 seconds, squat down using only your right leg, until you’re sitting in the chair. Stand up using both legs, then repeat the repetitions before switching to work the left leg.
Once you’re comfortable performing 10 repetitions in a row on each leg, switch it up. When you stand back up, do it on one leg, so you’re completing your whole set without touching the floor with your non-working leg. Start with only 2 or 3 repetitions, and work your way up to 10.
Most so-called “balance training” equipment (like BOSU balls or balance boards at the gym) is actually much less effective than you’d think. They don’t translate well into everyday movements, and present a risk for joint injuries — especially the ankle, and especially in older adults who may have osteoporosis, arthritis or other joint concerns. You don’t need fancy equipment to improve your balance. You can do so in your own home, and do it more effectively.