Exercise and Balance

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This article was edited and updated on October 9, 2016.

Three ways we Stay Balanced

We have to see where we are in space if we are going to stay upright.

Several systems control our balance. They are:

The inner ear helps us balance.

Why do we lose our balance?

As long as we have an even distribution of weight over our base of support (two legs), we are stable.

Static balance is standing still: there is some postural sway but it is under control.

When we interact with our environment — walking, pushing a grocery cart, or opening a door — we are using our dynamic balance. As we move, our centre of gravity shifts and the base of support changes. It’s harder to maintain our dynamic balance because moving means constant changes in the base of support.

Many things inside and outside our bodies affect our balance — they are sometimes referred to as intrinsic forces (muscles, joints, our brain, and changes in our body as we age) and extrinsic forces (from objects in our way to noise and lighting). Because loss of balance is often considered a part of the aging process, people don’t always seek medical attention, but each person must decide if a visit to the doctor for further diagnosis is necessary. Loss of balance can be caused by many things, and some of these are:

What do we do to prevent ourselves from falling?

The three strategies that we employ to prevent falling involve our joints:

What can be done to keep our balance as we get older?

Most research on this subject is finding that balance can be improved through routine group-based exercise classes. One such study 2 looked at 165 people over the age of 65. Half the group did not exercise; the other half did a weekly exercise class and some at-home exercises.

According to the abstract, "The intervention subjects attended a median of 23 exercise classes over the year, and most undertook the home exercise sessions at least weekly. At retest, the exercise group performed significantly better than the controls in three of six balance measures; postural sway on the floor with eyes open and eyes closed and coordinated stability."

The researchers concluded that "participation in a weekly group exercise programme with ancillary home exercises can improve balance and reduce the rate of falling in at-risk [older adults]."

Other studies have also shown that core training and weight training can help with balance as well.

Loss of muscle strength and flexibility as we age can be stopped or reversed...if we want to work at it and if we do some activities regularly. A good balance program should be for all ages, include both stationary and moving activities, be performed slowly, be well-lit, and have minimal distractions. While doing balance activities, good posture is a priority. Recently, researchers found that music may have benefits for our health and specifically for our balance. This research with the long title caught my eye: The Effect of Music-Based Multitask Training on Gait, Balance, and Fall Risk in Elderly People.

The researchers of this study already knew that “falls occur mainly while walking or performing concurrent tasks.” They wondered “if a music-based multitask exercise program could improve gait and balance and reduce fall risk in elderly individuals.” They conducted a 12-month study involving 134 individuals older than 65 years, who were at increased risk of falling. They were divided into two groups: One group was involved in a “six-month multitask exercise program performed to the rhythm of piano music.” The other group received no special instruction or training for six months, and then were given the same instruction as the first group. Participants were tested for their gait and balance stability at the beginning and the end of the programme.

The researchers concluded that “a 6-month music-based multitask exercise program improved gait under dual-task conditions, improved balance, and reduced both the rate of falls and the risk of falling,” particularly in older people. This was a small study, but an interesting one. And, if music — in this case, piano music — helps older adults to improve their balance, might it also be helpful to younger people? And if piano music works, why not other kinds of music? There’s no clear answer to those questions without further research, but logic suggests that we can extrapolate from this that there may be many benefits from moving to music. It’s worth keeping in mind.

Remember: falls often occur when we are multi-tasking. When we are trying to do too many things at once, we are more likely to fall and injure ourselves. Just as drivers should not be texting or talking on the phone, walkers should be extra cautious when carrying something, walking fast, or distracted by noises or other people.

What activities will help improve balance?

Let's divide this into three basic training categories: core, strength, and cardiovascular. Here is a short list of some activities that will help.

Core Training

The BOSU (on the left) is used to stand on for balance; the dynadisc is placed on a chair to sit on (you sit on the smooth side, not this bumpy side). The dynadisc can also be stood on, and the BOSU can be used with either side down.

Strength Training

Cardiovascular Training

Three different studies indicate that various activities will help your balance. They will be found here:

Some other activities to challenge your balance

  1. Stork Stand: Stand on one foot and try to maintain your balance as long as possible. Repeat on the other leg. Once mastered, try standing on one leg for up to a minute with your eyes closed. Stand in the corner of a room or near a chair for support, especially if you close your eyes.

  2. Walk the Line: Walk a straight line on the floor by placing one foot in front of the other (heel-to-toe). Try walking backwards in the same fashion. Advanced students: turn your head while walking or close your eyes! Have someone nearby to assist you if you are doing something with your eyes closed.

  1. Stair Lowering: Hold a handrail for support, stand on a stair and lower your heel down to the next step. Before letting your heel touch the stair below, immediately raise your leg back up to the stair above. When you feel safe, try doing it without the handrail. Have a friend nearby for assistance.

  2. Half-Roller: Stand on the device and challenge your balance. Don’t do this unless you already have fairly good balance and you want to maintain or improve it. Stand near a wall for support if you have any concerns about your stability.

This article is part of a series about various health conditions and the benefits of exercise. The other articles are:

I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.

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  1. These three dots behave exactly like a footnote. Click on them and you will get more information about the topic. 

  2. For full details, see here

  3. BOSU is an acronym for "BOth Sides Up" a reference to the two ways a BOSU ball can be positioned. The device is often used for balance training. When the dome side faces up, the BOSU ball provides an unstable surface while the device remains stable.