Those who already have good balance take it for granted, but balance is actually a very delicate mechanism. Did you know that vertigo (that horrific, nausea-inducing feeling of falling) can be caused by inner ear infections? Or that gym rats who do countless calf raises per day can have worse balance than a person of the same age whose daily physical activity consists of brushing their teeth while standing on one leg? Well, if you didn’t, it’s time for a refresher course on what affects your balance, why balance is important, and how to improve it.
Little-known fact: Balance is one of the most overlooked methods for maintaining your vibrancy well into your mature years. Three main sensory contributors affect it: your vision, your proprioceptors on the bottoms of your feet (they communicate position information to the brain), and the tiny hairs in the semicircular canals of your inner ear (they relay motion and gravity information to the brain). In layman’s terms, your eyes, your feet, and your ears. Before beginning your journey to improve your balance, Marilyn Moffat and Carole B. Lewis suggest assessing where you are today: Stand straight, wearing flat, closed-toe shoes, and fold your arms across your chest. With your eyes closed, raise and bend one leg and hold for 45 seconds. Repeat with the other leg.
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Marilyn Moffat is a professor of Physical Therapy at New York University. She published the Musculoskeletal Essentials, Cardiovascular/Pulmonary Essentials, Neuromuscular Essentials, and Integumentary Essentials book series for physical therapy clinicians and students.
- Dr. Carole B. Lewis is a private practitioner and consulting clinical specialist based in Washington, D.C. She has written extensively on aging and her articles have appeared in a number of publications including The Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association.
If you held on for 24 to 28 seconds, you’re in the 20- to 49-year-old range. If you held on for 11 to 21 seconds, you’re in the 50- to 59-year-old range. And if you held on for less than 10 seconds, you’re clocking in around 65 years of age. If you want to improve your score, keep scrolling.
1. Take a Pilates class to strengthen your core
Balance should be as popular in the fitness world as strength training, stretching, and cardio. Sadly, it’s not. But signing up for as many core-training classes as you can is a great way to improve your stability and balance.
Exercise physiologist and wellness coordinator for the University of Maryland Medical System Steven Ehasz sheds some no-nonsense light on the importance of a strong core: “Your core is the essence of everything you do, from your day-to-day activities to your athletic pursuits,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how strong your arms and legs are if they aren’t attached to something equally as strong.”
2. Challenge yourself with yoga
Even if you’re a regular yogi, try taking a beginners yoga class or workshop to focus specifically on your balance.
Organic Authority writer Krissy Brady admits that her balance “is worse than a drunk person’s,” but she stresses the importance of mastering these not-so-easy “easy” yoga poses. Work on your alignment and focus on your breathing. Once your feet, legs, torso, arms, and head are aligned, take Tree Pose. (This can count has your one-leg standing exercise for the day.) When you raise your arms overhead, make sure to relax your shoulders.
3. Mix up your fitness routine
Repetitive exercises will only improve your balance so much. Great balance is directly related to your motor cortex plasticity, meaning how quickly you can respond to new stimuli.
For a study conducted across Germany, Finland, and Denmark, scientists compared the data pertaining to their subjects’ motor cortex plasticity. Incredibly fit endurance athletes such as runners and cross-country skiers proved to have the same elasticity as non-athletes. Skill-trained dancers, gymnasts, and figure skaters, on the other hand, had dramatically higher plasticity. Whereas the repetitive training for endurance athletes often caused the brain to go on autopilot, the unpredictable nature of training for dancers, gymnasts, and skaters caused their neurons to be primed for action.
For best results, try changing parts of your workout every three to four weeks depending on your experience level and the time of year. Dedicate three weeks to a new routine and then one week for recovery.
The moral of the story? Do the unpredictable. Go for a trail run outside, play a game of capture the flag, or challenge a friend to a tennis match. Anything to get you moving in novel ways will help improve your balance.
4. Incorporate mini exercises into your work day
According to Harvard Health Publications, several commonly prescribed medications such as anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, sleep aids, and pain relievers can impair your balance. Ask your doctor if your go-to medicines are worth the potential long-term side effects.
Stop staying still. Don’t blame it on the 10-plus-hour workday. There are quick, easy, and only mildly embarrassing exercises you can do while at your desk. Try sitting down with your feet flat on the ground and your arms held out straight, parallel to your thighs. Stand up and sit down 10 times. For an extra challenge, try doing this with your eyes closed. Breaking up the day with little balance challenges will not only keep you sane after hours in front of the computer but also preserve your balance and keep you young!
Cleveland Clinic. Vestibular neuritis. Updated May 31, 2019.
Vestibular Disorders Association. The human balance system. Updated 2016.
Ambegaonkar JP, Mettinger LM, Caswell SV, Burtt A, Cortes N. Relationships between core endurance, hip strength, and balance in collegiate female athletes. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2014;9(5):604‐616.
Youkhana S, Dean CM, Wolff M, Sherrington C, Tiedemann A. Yoga-based exercise improves balance and mobility in people aged 60 and over: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Age Ageing. 2016;45(1):21‐29. doi:10.1093/ageing/afv175
Kumpulainen S, Avela J, Gruber M, et al. Differential modulation of motor cortex plasticity in skill- and endurance-trained athletes. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2015;115(5):1107‐1115. doi:10.1007/s00421-014-3092-6
Harvard Health Publishing. How medications can affect your balance.