Afraid of Falling? Try These Balance Exercises

Almost 10 million Americans report problems with balance.  About 40% of people over the age of 60 years experience problems with their balance.  One-third of adults in this age group and over half of people over the age of 75 years fall each year. Men and women are affected about equally.  Loss of muscle and changes in the vestibular and nervous systems are partly responsible for increasing falls as with age.  Thankfully you can do things to improve your balance and reduce your risk of falls.

Your eyes, inner ear, joints, and muscles all relay information to your brain.  Your brain interprets all the incoming information to determine where you are in your environment.   The brain then coordinates your response in order to maintain balance.  This is accomplished through pathways from your brain to your nerves and on to your muscles.  Existing pathways can be strengthened and new one can be created.  Performing exercise which is at an appropriate level to challenge and develop these pathways will improve your balance.  Below are 3 examples of such exercises.

Step Taps

Stand in front of a step or small step stool.  Place your hands on your hips or across your chest.  Place one foot gently on top of the step.  It is best to alternate steps with each foot.  The aim is to place the foot on the step as softly and quietly as possible without looking at your feet.  Begin by performing 10 slow repetitions with each foot.  Progress the exercise by using a higher step.

4-Square Stepping

Make 4 squares on the floor with objects such as clothing, rope, or yard sticks.  Step forward then to the side, then backwards, and then back to the starting square.  After a brief pause, reverse the direction.  Alternate directions with each reach repetition.  It is best to perform the exercise without looking at your feet.  Your stability is compromised then they head is held down.  Perform 5 repetitions in each direction.

Tandem Walk

Stand with the arms across your chest.  Step with a narrow base of support as if walking on a tightrope.  The heel of one foot touches the toes of the other foot.  Take 5 to 10 steps then pause in the narrow stance position for 5 seconds.  For a greater challenge perform the exercise both forward and backwards.  It is best to perform this exercise in a narrow hallway or near a counter in case you begin to lose your balance.

Closing Thoughts on Balance Exercises

Balance exercises must be performed frequently in order to influence your nervous system.  With consistent practice over time, balance and reaction time will improve slowly.   Don’t expect a rapid change in a few days.  In order to continue to make improvements, the challenge of each exercise is progressed over time.  Balance exercises work best when performed in conjunction with strength training.  See your physical therapist to determine which exercises are best for you.