Despite how much we rely on good balance throughout a given day, most of us rarely take the time to think about what gives us “good” or “bad” balance. In fact, most of us are not aware of the complex processes that go into doing something as “simple” as walking in a straight line without tipping over, unless we have fallen or lost our balance ourselves at some point. So, what is balance? Simply, it is the ability to keep ourselves upright using a variety of different body systems, including vision, vestibular input (the inner ear), sensation, and proprioception (body awareness).
Our bodies do an amazing job of giving us redundant information so that we are overprepared for challenges and obstacles. Balance is no different. Our bodies try to give us the same information in a variety of ways so that we have a higher likelihood of responding in a safe way. For example, imagine you are walking and there is a bump in your path. Your body visually sees and assesses the size and distance of the bump, your vestibular system keeps your head and eyes coordinated with your body movements (and each other) while you scan the way around it, your feet let you know if the ground you are on is soft or firm to allow for a safe crossing, and your proprioceptive system lets you know if your leg is actually lifting high enough to step over or on top of this obstacle. Lots of work for something that seems simple in practice!
So, how do we best keep all of these systems sharp and ready to work together? Balance, like most body functions, can be improved with practice! Taking the time to train your body to respond better to challenges makes it better able to deal with similar challenges in your everyday life. Balance exercise can range from very simple such as standing with one foot slightly in front of the other or standing on one leg (which might be challenging depending on how much practice you have had with that task) to very complex such as standing on foam or a wobble board while trying to perform a distracting task like throwing a ball. The key is finding something challenging enough that you feel a little “wobbly” but can also perform safely, and then practicing until you feel comfortable enough to perform it for an extended amount of time (which can range from 10 seconds to several minutes). Each of us has different reasons to keep our balance sharp; it could be preventing a fall or sharpening your balance for a sport, but no matter the reason, practice is key to improving and maintaining good balance. Below are some examples of beginner, intermediate, and expert level balance exercises that might be a good way to kickstart your balance routine! And remember, exercises should be challenging, but not dangerous. Only perform exercises you feel you can do while comfortably controlling your body.
It is also good to remember that good balance is a product of several body systems working together, so to have good balance, you have to train each body system. This means challenging your muscles at times, but also challenging your eyes, inner ear, and proprioceptive system. Some ideas for how to do this could include practicing standing with your eyes open and with your eyes closed to better sense where your body is in space. For your vestibular and visual system, you could practice turning your head in different directions while walking or marching in place with eyes focused on a target, or the opposite where your eyes are moving but your head is still. There are endless ways to challenge your balance, and variety is key to keep all your body systems healthy and coordinated!
These can be performed at a counter or other stable surface to allow for some help with balance.
Marching, weight shifting side to side, standing on one leg, standing with one foot in front of the other (like a tightrope)
These can be performed with a stick or near something like a counter to give support as needed.
Single or double leg heel raises, foot taps (tapping foot forward/side/back), standing on one leg with a blanket or foam underneath your foot
You should be able to comfortably and easily perform intermediate level exercises before attempting these, and only do exercises you feel you can safely do without injury.
Wobble board or BOSU ball single leg standing, foot taps while standing on foam, single leg balance with eyes closed, single leg standing while tossing a ball, single leg mini-squat