In this post we discuss how to improve your balance if you find that balance exercises don’t work.
The inspiration for this post came from a recent study that was featured in the national press.
If you missed it the conclusion went something like this; if you can’t stand on one leg for 10 seconds or more, you are at twice the risk of dying within 10 years.
Whilst the researchers admitted that balance is only a proxy for good health and not a direct measure of it, the conclusions naturally alarmed people.
Especially the ones who couldn’t balance on one leg.
The particular newspaper article I read also featured a number of exercises to help you improve your balance. These were variations of standing on one leg. The thing that people couldn’t do in the first place.
I imagine there are frustrated people up and down the country repeatedly trying and failing to stand on one leg whilst thinking about their impending death.
Let’s add some nuance to this and see if we can arrive at more helpful conclusions.
What is balance and why is it important?
Essentially balance is your ability to keep your centre of mass over your base of support. This can be assessed statically, as in the study above, or dynamically.
To do it well your central nervous system must act rapidly and accurately on an array of sensory inputs. These include visual, vestibular, and tactile information, as well as proprioceptive sensory feedback from your muscles and joints.
Balance is important for injury rehabilitation and sports performance but becomes critical as we age to prevent falls. This is also the time our ability to do it well tends to deteriorate.
Why does balance deteriorate as we age?
Impairments to any of the systems responsible for coordinating balance will obviously have an impact on your ability to do it well.
For example changes in eye sight, or reduced sensation from the feet that can occur with diabetes will result in impaired balance performance.
Outside of these individual influences, there are predictable changes that happen with age which have a direct impact on your ability to balance.
More on these in a moment.
How to improve your balance if balance exercises don’t seem to work.
There’s no doubt balance exercises can improve your balance to a certain extent. Studies have shown just one balance training session can improve your performance in a single leg balancing task.
The same study showed 10 subsequent training sessions either helped maintain that ability or enabled further, smaller gains.
What if you find those gains to be so modest that you still find balancing on one leg too difficult?
What does that suggest?
Imagine the single leg balancing task was the equivalent of some other physical test you found too difficult on your first attempt.
What would you do?
Let’s say you wanted to perform 10 push ups but at present you can’t perform 1.
Do you keep trying the single push up?
Or would you try something else?
One approach would be to break the task up into it’s constituent parts and work on them in isolation.
When you’ve improved your strength at the associated joints you can try the task again.
The single leg balance task is no different. Continuing to practice the task might not be producing results because the muscles involved can’t generate enough force to keep you upright.
Practicing the task might provide small gains, but the bigger win will come from working on those muscles in isolation.
Get stronger and your balance will improve.
Beyond the individual physical impairments I mentioned earlier, the loss of strength that begins to occur as we age may be the more important factor at work here.
Whilst balance is a proxy of physical health, improving your strength through resistance training will have a direct impact on it.
Weakness in the following muscles is associated with poor performance in balance tasks. Work on these areas with isolated exercises and you’ll notice balance tasks become easier.
Calf muscle strength.
The calf muscles or plantar flexors as they are called are responsible for preventing you from falling forwards. As such they are critical for balance tasks.
Weakness in these muscles is highly correlated with your ability to maintain balance in an anterior to posterior direction (front to back).
Ankle range of motion.
The evertors of the subtalar joint include the peroneal muscles which reside at the side of your lower leg. They are the first muscles to respond when you are in danger of spraining your ankle.
Limitations in ankle dorsiflexion have also been shown to decrease balance performance. This motion is also critical to prevent your toes from catching the floor as you walk or run.
Knee extensor strength.
Perhaps more important than being able to balance on one leg is the ability to react when you are in danger of falling.
Most falls occur when you’re walking and you catch your trailing foot on an unseen object.
In order to stop yourself from hitting the ground you must free your foot and quickly swing your trailing leg through to get your foot out in front of you.
This requires a rapid hip flexion movement, followed by the ability to slow the bending of your knee that your foot contacting the ground will cause. Strong quadriceps are important for this.
Hip abduction strength.
The muscles that sit on the side of your pelvis and produce movement of your leg out to the side, also control lateral movement of your pelvis.
This is important to prevent your centre of mass travelling laterally outside of your base of support. These muscles have also been shown to be protective of inversion ankle sprains.
Hip flexor strength.
Studies show that hip flexion is one of the first movements to show reductions in strength past the age of 50.
The hip flexors are critical to forward motion in both walking and running but also allow you to clear objects in your path by lifting your leg.
Balance is an important skill to practice, particularly as we age.
If you find balance tasks challenging, work on the muscles involved with isolated resistance training exercises.
This will not only improve your balance but will likely improve your health as well.