An important age range for improving balance is the 30s and 40s. While most people don’t develop serious balance problems until well into their 50s, experts recommend that otherwise healthy people keep active and do simple exercises to keep steady into old age.
In the U.S., falls are the leading cause of injury for people over 65, according to a 2005 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every 17 seconds, someone in this age group is treated in an emergency room for a fall. Every 30 minutes, one will die from injuries caused by falling.
Balance is controlled by the brain’s cerebellum; it coordinates information from three systems: the visual, the vestibular (or inner ear) and the proprioceptive (or sense of body position). In addition, it works with the spinal cord to adjust for unexpected information—for instance, a slippery surface.
All these systems start to erode after 40. And people also become more sedentary as they age and begin to rely on the visual system more heavily. The problem: The visual system doesn’t work as quickly as the vestibular system, so people start getting shaky and risk falling. When people then don’t trust their own balance, so they become more sedentary, and your balance gets worse.
Exercises can isolate these different systems and make the body work harder to keep them in top shape. Experts suggest doing exercises in a couple of five- to 10-minute bouts each day.
And seek ways to challenge your body to maintain stability in your daily routine. If you ride the metro, stand and hold the pole with only a light grip rather than a tight clutch. And walk on different surfaces. At a park, for example, alternate between pavement and grass; the unstable surface makes muscles work more.
Stand and lift your right arm straight out in front of you while swinging your left leg back and forth, and vice versa, to work on coordination. Then try it with eyes closed to decrease your reliance on vision for balance.
Strengthening the hips—an important component of preserving balance—can be done next to the kitchen counter, says Jennifer Brach, an associate professor of physical therapy at the University of Pittsburgh. Hold the counter while standing on one leg and lift the other leg to the front, then the side, then back and then up with your knee bent like you’re marching. This works four separate groups of muscles: the hip abductors, hip adductors, hip extensors and hip flexors. (These muscles can also be strengthened by using the hip abductor and adductor weight machines at the gym.)
For office workers, simply getting up from a chair 10 times in a row can be useful. Alternate between getting up with your feet in wide stance, which provides more support, and with a narrow stance, your feet touching.
Another exercise is the “stepping pattern.” Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Put the right foot in front of the left, and shift weight onto the front foot so that the left heel is off the ground. Do this 10 times. Then repeat with the left foot in front of the right.
For a more difficult variation, alternate sides—right-left-right-left—to get your body accustomed to switching weight more quickly. You can make the move more challenging by stepping backward.
The stepping pattern forces you to think and coordinate and time your body. Exercises that encourage learning new moves and adjusting to the environment may be better for maintaining balance.
Walking in a circle or oval around the living room or backyard can be good practice because it is more challenging to walk on a curve.
Yoga can also boost balance ability because it increases flexibility and its many poses integrate movements that strengthen a lot of different muscles, including those in the hip.