Balance is our ability to stay in position. While that’s a simple enough definition, it is actually quite complex, and involves vision, hearing, and input from our muscles and joints to our brain.
“If there’s a deficiency in any one of these systems, the others have to work harder to keep you steady,” says certified athletic therapist John Sage. “When your balance is diminished, it can be the beginning of the end,” he adds. Specifically, poor balance can lead to falls and injury.
According to the Canadian Institute of Health Information, between 2014 and 2015, there were nearly 150,000 hospitalizations from “slipping, tripping and stumbling.” Another sobering fact? The Public Health Agency of Canada says 20% of people over 65 fall every year. It’s the leading cause of injury-related hospitalizations for this group.
To stay healthy and active, you need to avoid becoming one of those statistics. Better balance will help. Sage sees clients of all ages and abilities, from the sedentary to the Olympic athlete, and he has them all do the following exercises for improved balance.
Stand on one leg
“This is basic,” says Sage, “and should be practiced daily.”
While you’re brushing your teeth, standing at the sink washing dishes, or watching TV, lift one foot to the other knee. Stand as still as possible for as long as you can. Switch legs.
Start this exercise wearing shoes (easiest), graduate to bare feet, then try it while standing on your bathmat. This move builds muscle, which is good for stability, and “By introducing different surfaces, your brain has to work harder,” says Sage.
Eventually you should be able to stand on one leg, on any surface, for 30 seconds.
Step over things
As we age, we may start to shuffle, to walk without lifting our feet as high off the ground as we used to. This gait is often a compensation for diminished balance and may lead to a greater fall risk as we need our feet to be able to clear common hazards such as sidewalks, carpeting, and stray toys.
At his clinic, Sage uses pylons in order to get clients accustomed to lifting and lowering their feet without getting tripped up. You can train for this at home as well, just line your hallway with any object (socks, books, bags…) placed in a line a couple feet apart. Lifting your leg up and over the item before walking towards the next item will force you to balance on one leg longer than you’re used to. This will help you to increase your balance during gait and decrease your risk of falls and injury.
This balance exercise eliminates visual cues thereby forcing you to rely on other senses to stay balanced. Not only do we not see where we are going, but this also forces us to walk in toe-heel steps rather than the more familiar heel-toe steps when walking forward.
Get on an unstable surface
Training on unstable surfaces or with dynamic movements helps to train our body to react to changes in our environment. You can do this at home without equipment.
While you’re watching TV, toss a sofa cushion on the floor and stand on it on one leg. Find your balance and see if you can stay there during a commercial break. Then try it with one arm raised. This changes your centre of gravity and makes your brain work to rebalance.
At his clinic, Sage can intensify this move. When they master having one arm raised, Sage has clients hold a tennis ball and move it from side to side. “Eventually, I start throwing things at them,” he says. The point is for clients to keep balanced on the unstable surface while also relying on their reflexes to catch flying objects. This gets the brain and the body used to working together to stay balanced.
“Balance is something you should work on every day for the rest of your life,” says Sage.
And by focusing on it with targeted exercises like these, it can always be improved.
R.Kin, CAT(C), D.O.M.P.
John has over 12 years clinical experience in a private rehabilitation setting. He graduated from the Canadian College of Osteopathy in 2014, as well as acquiring a Bachelor of Physical Ed with honours from Brock University and a Diploma of Sports Injury Management from Sheridan College. He was Lead Medical Practitioner for Baseball at the 2015 Pan American Games, and has worked with Baseball Canada and the National Junior Baseball team. He also participated in the 2011 Canada Winter Games as part of the core medical team and training staff for Team Ontario Hockey.