Balance is something so many of us take for granted until we lose it. I realized this for the first time a few years ago when I was grocery shopping with my grandmother. After years of picking her up every Sunday so that she could get her food for the week, we’d settled into a nice little routine. I’d follow her around with the grocery cart while she buzzed about, gathering her favorite rye bread, European butter, and Hungarian salami.
One day, though, after suffering a minor fall the night before, she insisted on pushing the cart. Not wanting to embarrass her, I let her, but I couldn’t help but notice that she seemed afraid to fall again. From then on, I noticed that she was much more cautious when she walked. She started to shuffle rather than picking up her feet, and she began to bend over to grab onto anything that would support her as she moved.
Unfortunately, falls are the leading cause of fatal injury among older adults. My grandmother must have known that because, afterward, she was noticeably shaken. What she didn’t know, however, was that there is a lot that older adults can do to prevent falls. With my help and a little encouragement from her doctor, she began doing daily exercises to improve her balance. In just a few short weeks, I noticed an incredible difference in the way she carried herself and the control she seemed to gain over her movements.
If your aging loved one is experiencing a loss of balance or is looking for ways to prevent dangerous falls, engaging in daily exercise is one of the best things they can do. Let’s look at the reasons why aging adults lose their balance and explore some of the best exercises for older adults to improve their balance.
Why Older Adults Lose Balance
There are many reasons why older adults lose their balance as they age. A decline in eyesight resulting in vision problems like blurriness or distortion can have a negative effect on balance, and problems with the ear canals and low blood pressure causing dizziness or lightheadedness also tends to throw off our equilibrium. Of course, certain medications and specific health conditions can also play a role in a loss of balance.
The main reason that aging adults lose their balance, however, is due to the loss of muscle mass. Not only does this result in a marked decline in muscle strength, it also affects the speed at which one moves. According to Dr. Anthony Komaroff of Harvard Medical School, strength and speed together influence power. Loss of power leads to a loss of balance, as power is what allows you to correct course quickly when you fall off balance or to propel yourself forward with strength and confidence. Of course, as we age, reflexes also tend to slow, so our bodies may not react as quickly when we trip or misstep, which can result in falling.
Simple Exercises for Older Adults to Improve Balance
Regardless of the factors influencing one’s balance, there are exercises that aging adults can do to improve their balance and decrease the chances of falling. Practiced on a daily or twice daily basis with bare feet, these exercises can have an incredibly positive impact on muscle strength and power.
For safety’s sake, be sure to talk your loved one’s geriatric doctor before starting a new exercise regime. If your aging loved one has poor balance or is particularly frail, be sure to physically support them by standing behind them or by holding their hands throughout the exercises.
Here are the five simplest and best exercises for older adults to improve balance, along with step-by-step instructions so your aging loved one can give them a try.
Good posture is the foundation of good balance, so start your balance routine by standing up straight. Carry this posture through the rest of your exercises and be mindful of your posture during the day.
- Stand with your back to a wall, holding onto a chair in front of you or the hands of your caregiver if need be.
- Gently push your back into the wall so that your head, shoulders, your bottom, and the backs of your heels are all touching the wall. Stand tall and feel your core strong and engaged. Hold this position for 30 seconds, letting go of any supports if possible. Repeat three times.
The Standing One-Leg Balance
This exercise is the most fundamental balancing exercise for aging adults. Even though it is simple, it engages the muscles in the feet, legs, and the core. Be sure to have your caregiver stand behind you as you do this exercise to help stabilize you if you lose balance.
- Stand facing the kitchen counter with your feet together and your back tall.
- Holding onto the counter, engage your core, bend one knee, and lift the foot at a right angle out behind you so that you are balancing on the other. Slowly remove your hands from the counter and lift them out to the sides.
- Balance for as long as you can and repeat on the other side. Challenge yourself to balance longer every time. Repeat three to five times on each leg.
The Balance Beam
This exercise improves balance by engaging and strengthening the legs and core. As you practice, hold the hands of your caregiver or have them stand behind you with their hands gently resting on your hips for support.
- Stand tall with your arms out to the sides and your feet together. Feel your core strong and engaged.
- Place one foot in front of the other foot, as if you were on a balance beam, and hold for five counts. Be mindful to keep your head and your line of vision steady.
- Continue placing one foot in front of the other and pausing, moving in a straight line. Practice this for five minutes.
Targeting the quadriceps and knees, this exercise helps build the strength and balance needed to confidently rise from a seated position.
- Sit in a chair with both feet flat on the ground, hip-width apart.
- Reach your arms straight out in front of you and push into your feet.
- Engage your legs and rise to stand. Stand for a few seconds, holding a steady gaze and strong legs.
- With your arms still in front of you, sit down and repeat five to 10 times, increasing reps with practice.
Toe and Heel Rises
Strengthening the lower legs, the calves, shins, and ankles, is critical for maintaining balance when walking and stair-climbing.
- Stand at the kitchen counter with your hands gently resting on top. Stand tall and look straight ahead with your feet a little closer than hip-width apart.
- Slowly bring your weight to your toes, lifting your heels off of the ground, so that you are standing on your tiptoes. Hold for three seconds and lower.
- Next, lift your toes so that you are standing on your heels. Hold for three seconds and lower. Repeat for five to 10 reps, increasing reps as your practice.
While these exercises will effectively increase strength and power to promote balance and help prevent falling, it is also important for aging adults to engage in activities that increase flexibility as well. Making flexibility training, such as yoga or tai chi, part of a weekly or even daily exercise regime can be very beneficial for keeping the muscles toned and supple.
It truly was incredible to see my grandmother regain her confidence and her balance. The more she practiced her exercises, the more strength she gained and the less the fear of falling seemed to control her. Once again she was the strong, independent woman I’d always known her to be. And before I knew it, I was back to pushing the grocery cart again.
For more information on how you can support your aging loved ones in living happy, healthy, independent lives, check out more of our blog posts or contact us at Institute on Aging today.