4 Ways to Improve Your Balance, According to a Personal Trainer
Balance is an important aspect of fitness that impacts our ability to perform everyday tasks. Excluding balance-related issues caused by vision, cognition, medication or problems affecting the inner ear, many of the difficulties we face with balance arise from a lack of strength. That's where exercises to improve balance come in handy.
As a certified personal trainer, I've heard clients say, "I have no balance!" My response is, "Let's work on it!"
Balance is not something that you inherently have or don't—it's something you have to practice and actively work to improve. Numerous studies show that balance can be significantly improved through exercise. Research also indicates that balance training helps reduce the risk of injury by lowering the risk of falls in older adults and the risk of ankle and knee injuries in people of all ages. Whether you are a world-class athlete, a weekend warrior, a youth athlete or are simply someone looking to continue the activities you enjoy as you age, improving your balance is key to maintaining an active lifestyle.
Exercises to Improve Balance
To improve balance, you should focus on four key areas: increasing core strength, strengthening the muscles of the lower body, shifting your focus and putting it into practice. Here are some exercises to improve balance.
Increase Core Strength
Core strength is absolutely imperative to our overall health and well-being, especially when it comes to building balance. Research indicates that core strength exercises can also improve balance and stability.
When you think of your core, you may just think of your abdominal muscles. While the abdominal muscles are a part of it, your core is made up of all of the muscles between your shoulders and your hips—basically the trunk of your body. It's also what provides support for your bones and keeps your musculoskeletal system working properly.
To strengthen your core, you want to strengthen the abdominal muscles, including the obliques; the muscles in the back, including the spinal erectors; and the muscles of the pelvic floor.
Exercises to Increase Core Strength:
Strengthen the Lower Body
To improve your balance, you must also improve your stability. To improve your stability, you must improve your lower body strength.
The muscles in the lower body—the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings and calf muscles—are some of our largest muscle groups. Your adductors (inner thigh muscles) are also important for balance because they keep the hips in alignment. Yet as we age, it becomes harder for us to maintain muscle mass, which can lead to balance issues. Studies show that by including exercises to strengthen the muscles in the lower body, we can also improve our balance.
Exercises to Build Lower Body Strength:
If you have tried all of these exercises and are looking to take your training further, incorporate instability. By incorporating instability into an exercise, you up the ante by making the large muscle groups work independently on each side and forcing the stabilizing muscles around the ankles and knees to work harder.
The simplest way to do this is by standing on one foot. I always remind my clients to soften the knee, pull their belly button in to activate the core, and tilt their chin up slightly to lift their gaze. Plus, it's easy to slip in any time of day—while you're in line at the grocery store, brushing your teeth or stirring a pot. Once you've mastered that, try one-leg standing with your eyes closed. This will help sharpen your proprioception.
Once you feel confident about your standing balance and can stand on one foot for at least 30 seconds, you can try incorporating additional instability to your lower body exercises.
Lower Body Exercises to Build Strength and Incorporate Instability:
There are also a number of tools available that can elevate your balance training. In our studio, we use both the Bosu Balance Trainer (buy it: $120, Amazon) and the Airex Balance Pad (buy it: $70, Amazon) to work with clients on improving their balance, stability and strength.
The TRX Suspension Trainer (buy it: $130, Amazon) is another great option. We frequently use this piece of equipment when beginning to work with clients on balance as it provides the ability to hold on to the handles for extra stability and a feeling of security.
Shift Your Focus
In addition to specific exercises, focusing your attention is also important part of improving balance. In fact, research indicates that by focusing on a point outside the body (i.e., external focus) we can improve our balance, not just when standing on a stable surface, but also when we are moving and when the difficulty of the task or exercise increases.
I see examples of this often with my clients—initially, they either try to focus on their feet or they focus on the exercise itself. This almost always causes trouble with balance. To address this, I use these simple cues to help keep the focus external:
- While standing, focus on a fixed point (something that does not move) that is at least 10 feet in front of you.
- Remind yourself of the cues for standing on one foot: soften your knees (we don't want them locked out), pull your belly button in (to activate your core) and lift your chin slightly to shift your gaze.
- Concentrate your attention on the fixed point as you perform the exercise. This can be as simple as standing, and can progress from there to walking, standing on one foot or performing any of the included exercises to improve balance.
- Bring your focus and attention back to the fixed point anytime it wanes.
By focusing externally, you allow your body to work on autopilot and reflexively to complete the action without your brain getting in the way.
Practice for Progress
Balance is use it or lose it. You simply have to practice it to make it better.
In addition to the exercises to improve balance we've discussed, there are a number of easy ways to incorporate balance practices into your daily routine:
- Shift your weight from one foot to the other while standing in line.
- Stand on one foot to do any common chore: brushing your teeth, washing the dishes or stirring a pot on the stove.
- Stand on one foot while doing any upper body exercise during your workout: biceps curls, shoulder press, overhead triceps extension, upright row, side shoulder raise; these are just a few of the many options.
- Look around while you're walking. This may seem strange, but moving your head back and forth as you stroll actually helps retrain how your eyes and inner ears integrate to keep you balanced.
- Practice yoga. With its focus on core strength and stability and a variety of balance-based poses, it's no surprise that practicing yoga has been shown to help improve balance.
- Get out and move. Walking, jogging, running and hiking all require you to utilize your balance since, at any given point, you are moving and only have one foot firmly planted on the ground.
- Play ball! Activities like throwing, catching and kicking a ball all involve balance. Plus, you can get your kids or grandkids involved and make it fun.
By adding simple activities to your daily routine, you can make a noticeable improvement in your balance.
Build Balance, Build Confidence
Building balance also means building confidence. When you are afraid of being unstable or have a fear of falling, it can keep you from doing the activities that you enjoy. By building core strength, building lower body strength, focusing externally and practicing, you'll find that as your balance improves, so does your confidence!
When to Seek Additional Help
It's important to note that the exercises provided here are to be used as a general guideline. If you feel uncertain about how to safely do any of these exercises, we suggest that you seek the assistance of a fitness professional or physical therapist to help you find a baseline measurement and create a plan to progress.
If you find that you have new, strong or persistent issues with your balance or if you feel faint, dizzy, lightheaded, shaky or generally physical unstable or insecure, contact your health care provider for an evaluation.