To improve exercise performance and help prevent falling and injuries, include balance training in your fitness routine.

By Jill M. Henderzahs-Mason P.T.

If you've committed to regular exercise, you're likely working up a sweat during heart-pumping cardio sessions and feeling the burn with weight-training reps. You might even be stretching it out in downward-facing dog. However, balance training is a key component of fitness that is often left out. So why is it important? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 out of 4 older adults fall each year. Balance training improves your body's ability to react quickly to everyday missteps, which in turn helps prevent falls. During exercise, balance also helps you move more efficiently for improved performance and injury prevention.

Balance refers to the ability to stay upright and steady, whether you're standing, kneeling, sitting or squatting. Several sensory systems in your body contribute to good balance. Your vision, inner ear and joint receptors provide a sense of where your body is in space. The neuromuscular system synthesizes this information to give you the stability you need to keep your body upright, with your weight evenly distributed.

Balance exercises can train and strengthen your neuromuscular system and increase your stability. Here are some ways to incorporate balance activities into your day:

Try standing with your feet closer together, walking by putting one foot directly in front of the other or balancing on one leg.

  • Walk the balance beam. Pretend you're on a balance beam and walk one foot in front of the other while maintaining balance. Get kids involved in the fun, too.
  • Be a flamingo! Balance on one foot any chance you get: during TV commercials, waiting for the bus, reading the news. Look for everyday opportunities to practice.
  • Stand on a pillow or mat, foam pad or disk, progressing to less stable surfaces, such as a balance ball (Bosu) flat-side down (more stable) or up (less stable). Stand with feet close together or on one leg if you're able.
  • Try venturing out for a walk on variable terrain, such as a sandy beach or a hiking trail. If you have access, standing on a floating dock or bridge can be a fun way to challenge yourself.

Try closing your eyes as you stand with your feet together, pretend to walk on a balance beam, balance on one leg or walk on a varying surface. Use caution and rely on a partner for support if needed.

Start with varying foot and leg positions as noted above, or try an unstable surface. If you need a challenge, try both at the same time, and you can close your eyes, too! (Careful, this is more difficult than it seems!)

While standing on one leg, put your arms out in a T position and make small circular motions for 30 seconds. Then try circular motions in the opposite direction. Work to increase your time. Once this becomes easy, try simultaneously turning your head side to side.

Incorporating balance training into your daily activity or exercise routine can be both easy and fun. These exercises should be tailored to your skill level. You should be challenged, but not to the degree that it is difficult to perform them safely.

Aim to incorporate balance exercises into your life for at least a few minutes each day — get started with these experiments.

  1. During phone calls or television commercials, practice standing on one leg like a flamingo for 45 seconds, then switch sides. If this is too easy, try closing your eyes.
  2. Line up several pillows end to end, and walk across them, pretending you're on a balance beam. If this is too challenging, walk on a flat surface. Experiment with slowly turning your head side to side, then up and down while you are walking.
  3. Try a class designed to challenge and enhance your balance, such as tai chi, Pilates or yoga.
Nov. 30, 2016