We don’t often think about our balance until it becomes a problem. In my work as a therapist, I’ve treated both younger and older adults with balance problems.
Balance is a complex system, involving communication between our brain, body, and sensory systems. A decline in any one of these can quickly become problematic.
We tend to associate balance problems with aging, but there isn’t a magical age you reach in which your balance starts to decline. Instead, physical decline begins the minute you stop challenging yourself.
The benefits of maintaining and improving your balance at any age are endless. You’re more likely to be capable to continue doing the activities you love as you age. You’ll worry less about falling, and have more confidence than adults who don’t have good balance. Research has even found a strong connection between balance and brain health. The better your balance, the sharper your mind as you age.
There are small ways you can challenge your balance with daily practice. And better yet, these actions step to improve your balance can be fun!
The most overlooked component of programs intended to improve balance is a lack of emphasis on sensory systems. An ideal balance program involves sensory systems, mental tasks, and physical strength.
Let’s take a look at the action steps you can take to improve your balance starting today:
Get out of your physical comfort zone each and every day.
This is a simple, but often overlooked component of any aspect of our physical and mental health. Without stepping out of your comfort zone every day, you are declining as you age. Find small ways throughout your day to challenge your physical and mental health.
For example, try standing on one foot as you wash your dishes. For any regular, try going through parts of it with your eyes closed or your head turned to one side. Incorporate memory or thinking tasks into basic exercises. Examples include reciting the months of the year in reverse (or my personal favorite, reciting all your favorite foods).
Work on your foot mobility.
If we haven’t talked about this enough, improving foot and ankle mobility is one of the highest impact ways to improve your balance.
Improving foot mobility involves a simple routine of calf stretching and self foot-mobilizing. These simple exercises can easily be incorporated into daily activities, like drinking a cup of coffee.
If you’re looking for one of the highest impact ways to improve your health, this is it.
Practice visual exercises.
The most overlooked component of balance is the connection between our vision, brain, and equilibrium. Your eyes communicate visual input with the systems deep within your inner ear. Then, this information is relayed to your brain about your location and movement through space.
Every heard of vertigo? Vertigo is the most extreme version of dysfunction between these systems. But, some adults experience a mild miscommunication between these systems without realizing it.
You may not even be aware of the problem if this is you, but practicing visual exercises is a simple solution.
Visual exercises can be as simple as turning your head side to side while trying to walk in a straight line or standing on one foot. If you have difficulty keeping your balance while doing this, it’s a sign this is what you need to work on the most!
Challenge your walking.
If you aren’t challenging your walking throughout the day, you’re missing out a huge opportunity to improve your balance without investing additional time.
There are hundreds of ways you can challenge your balance while walking. Try stepping over or on obstacles in your path on purpose rather than avoiding them (yes parents... step on those Legos on purpose). Vary the terrain you walk on. If you’re walking outdoors, go for gravel, sand, or grass instead of smooth pavement. If you’re indoors, set yourself up a fun obstacle course of objects you can step on, over, and around. Incorporate head turning or nodding with your walking. Again, the possibilities here are endless and provide massive benefits for little effort!
Practice motor imagery.
Ever heard of athletes envisioning their performance even when they aren’t at practice? Research found those who envision their performance going perfectly are more likely to make it happen in the moments it matters. This practice is called motor imagery and utilizes some of the same brain circuitry as performing the physical task itself. By practicing motor imagery, motor pathways within the brain are reinforced.
Even if you aren’t an athlete, you can experience some of these same benefits with a regular practice of motor imagery. Before you attempt a physical task or balance challenge, imagine it going perfectly. This is a small but powerful way to improve your physical function over time.
Again, improving and maintaining your balance requires a daily practice of pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone in small ways. Try any of the action steps and let us know what you learn!