Balance begins to decline after age 50 due to decreased activity, health issues, medication interactions, eyesight changes, and hearing loss. Luckily, there are methods to combat this decline. Even if you use a walker or have multiple medical problems, you can and should improve your balance. It is vital to your health and improves your overall function. Here, we outline several basic balance exercises for seniors that can be adapted for almost all fitness and mobility levels.
It’s critical to talk with your physician about exercises before starting any physical activity routine to ensure that you can safely perform the exercises. Consider using a physical or occupational therapist’s services to keep you safe and avoid injury as you get started.
Falling and older adults
Falls are a critical problem for older adults, and although age-related issues can contribute to falls, they are not a normal part of aging. Falls are the leading cause of injury and disability for older adults, with one in four over the age of 65 falling each year. Fall prevention strategies can help keep you safe, as can taking proactive steps such as staying active, annual eye and hearing tests, medication reviews, podiatry visits, and performing the following balance exercises.
Movement 1: Sit-to-stand
Sit to stand is one of the most basic and essential exercises. People with weak leg muscles tend to use their arms to push out of a chair or wheelchair. While this is not necessarily a bad technique, it will further weaken the legs, and weak leg muscles can contribute to falls. The sit-to-stand exercise will help you to stand with proper form and maintain the strength of your legs.
Target muscle group
Sit-to-stand activates the core and strengthens the quads, hamstrings, and calves. These muscle groups are instrumental in standing and transferring. Strengthening your thighs, hips, and hamstrings will improve your endurance and balance and help keep you from falling.
How to perform sit-to-stand
The eventual goal is to stand without using your hands, but as you get started, use both hands to ensure stability. As the exercise gets easier, transition to one and then no hands. Consider placing a sturdy table or walker in front of your chair or wheelchair to lean on for added support.
- From a seated position, move toward the front of your chair.
- Place your hands lightly next to your sides.
- Keep your back and neck straight.
- Breathe in and shift your weight to the front of your feet.
- Use your hands as little as possible and stand up, breathing out.
- Breathe in as you sit down slowly. Don’t plop. Use your core muscles as much as you can.
- Repeat 10 to 15 times or as much as tolerated. Rest a minute and repeat. Do this exercise every day.
- Be patient. It will take time to see results.
If a regular sit-to-stand is too difficult, consider these modifications:
- Add a cushion to raise the chair height.
- Use a taller chair.
- Ask someone to spot you by assisting you to a standing position.
- Place the back of your chair against a wall to provide additional support.
Movement 2: Standing march
Many older adults don’t walk as much as they used to due to mobility issues or fear of falling, and the less one walks, the harder it becomes. The standing march is a great exercise to practice walking safely without going outside.
Target muscle group
The standing march works the thighs, hamstrings, calves, core, and lungs. Specifically, this exercise trains you not to shuffle your feet while walking, a habit contributing to falls.
How to perform the standing march
- Begin with your feet slightly apart.
- March in place slowly while breathing, raising your knee as high as you can.
- Perform the exercise as many times as possible, up to 20.
- Repeat after resting for one minute.
- Do this exercise twice daily.
For some, a standing march will be challenging. Don’t force it. Do what you can, and over time you will see improvement.
- Choose a place with a counter or other sturdy surface to support yourself if you feel unsteady. You can also stand in a corner for support.
- If you use a wheelchair or are uncomfortable standing for long periods, instead try hip marching: From a seated position, raise one knee, keeping your leg bent. Lower your leg and then do the same with the other leg. Repeat 10 times on each side, and increase the repetitions as the exercise gets easier.
Movement 3: One-leg stand
The one-leg stand can be difficult for anyone, so be careful when performing this exercise. Mastering it will yield multiple benefits, including postural stability, which has been associated with improved cognitive health.
Target muscle group
The one-leg stand works your core, leg muscles, and proprioceptive system. The proprioceptive system is your ability to sense your body’s location, movements, and actions. Multiple age-related conditions can impair the proprioceptive system, such as diabetes, MS, arthritis, stroke, joint replacement, Parkinson’s disease, and others.
How to perform the one-leg stand
- Rest your hands on a counter or chair for stability.
- Start with your feet together and back straight.
- Slowly bend one knee and lift your leg behind you. Keep your leg bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Hold your balance for 10 seconds. Lower your leg back down.
- Repeat on each side 10 to 15 times. Eventually increase how long you stand to 30 and then 60 seconds.
- Incorporate this exercise into your daily routine while brushing your teeth or washing dishes.
For higher difficulty, you can rest more gently on the chair or counter until you no longer need to use anything for stability. If even this becomes too easy, you can try standing on one leg with your eyes closed, but make sure you hold on to something since balancing with your eyes closed is much more difficult.
Movement 4: Heel raises
Heel raises are another lower-body exercise to aid in lifting the legs and preventing shuffling. They improve your ability to push off the ground and increase your walking speed, which will help you walk more confidently, efficiently, and safely.
Target muscle group
Heel raises strengthen your calves, shin, and ankle muscles. These lower-leg muscles are important for maintaining balance while standing and walking.
How to perform heel raises
- Use a counter or chair for stability.
- Stand with your back straight and feet flat on the floor.
- Press into the balls of your feet and lift your heels so that you are standing on your toes. Hold for five seconds.
- Lower slowly. Repeat this action 10 to 15 times.
Heel raises can be performed while sitting down if standing for long periods is hard. For added difficulty, you can perform heel raises while balancing on one leg.
Movement 5: Side leg raises
Weak middle sections cause overcompensation by other muscle groups, which can lead to strain or injury. Middle sections are also key in maintaining balance. Side leg raises are a safe and effective strengthening exercise for your middle section.
Target muscle group
Side leg raises improve strength and stability for your glutes, hips, and core. These muscle groups keep your hips in alignment as you stand or walk, which helps you maintain balance and avoid falling.
How to perform side leg raises
- Stand straight behind a sturdy chair with feet about shoulder width apart. Hold the chair for support, or place your hands on your hips.
- Slowly lift one leg to the side, keeping your foot flexed. Make sure you don’t bend over during the exercise. Keep your hips in alignment with your upper and lower body.
- Hold the position for 10 to 15 seconds before lowering your leg.
- Repeat 10 to 15 times on each side.
If standing is too difficult, you can perform this exercise while lying down. As with standing, keep your body in alignment.
Movement 6: Heel-to-toe walking
Heel-to-toe walking is a simple yet effective exercise. If you can master it, you will improve your coordination and balance.
Target muscle groups
This exercise works all the lower leg muscles but especially strengthens the ankles. It helps you maintain your center of gravity over your ankles, providing a more solid base while standing or walking. Heel-to-toe walking also improves your proprioceptive system, which will give you greater confidence as you walk.
How to perform heel-to-toe walking
- Stand straight with your feet shoulder width apart. Keep your shoulders level as you hold your arms out to your sides, palms facing the floor.
- Take one step forward, placing your heel directly in front of the other foot, touching the other foot’s toes.
- Keep walking this way with one foot directly in front of the other.
- Repeat for 20 to 30 steps.
If you feel unsteady, use a wall for balance and extra support. You also might try walking sticks for added stability.
It is never too late to start balance exercises
All these balance exercises take patience and commitment, but it is never too late to start. Make these a part of your daily routine, and you will reap the benefits in time. You’ll feel more confident as you gain strength and stability. Working on balance keeps you safe from falls and maintains your functional capacity, making you happier, healthier, and more independent as you age.