When it comes to aging well, it is understood that physical activity is beneficial for a range of health outcomes.
We often see advice on keeping flexible, cardiovascular fitness, and building strength, but one area you might not hear as much about is the importance of working on our ability to balance confidently. Enter balance exercises for seniors!
As well as muscle-strengthening and aerobic exercise, when it comes to the prevention of falls, the World Health Organization (WHO) also recommends that adults aged 65 and over “should do varied multicomponent physical activity that emphasizes functional balance…”
In this article we’ll cover:
- Why balance matters
- Benefits of balance exercises for seniors
- 10 exercises to improve balance for seniors
Why balance matters
When it comes to balance, the following three elements are important:
- Proprioception (your awareness of your body’s position in space)
- Vestibular system (your inner ear function which aids spatial orientation i.e. your ability to sense the world around you in three dimensions)
All of the above tend to deteriorate to some degree with age. This is why inner ear and vision problems affect our ability to balance and partly why the risk of falls increases, as we get older.
According to the NHS in the UK, about 1 in 3 adults over the age of 65 and half of people over the age of 80 will have at least one fall a year.
In addition, doing what we can to prevent falls and reduce the risk of injury takes on even more importance where osteoporosis is a concern.
Osteoporosis is a condition that women are more prone to post-menopause. It weakens the bones with pelvis and spinal fractures and broken wrists being the most common injuries for those with this condition.
Related to this, a few other reasons for fall risk increasing include:
- Sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss)
- Changes in depth perception (your ability to see three-dimensional objects and determine how far away they are)
- Long-term health conditions (e.g. low blood pressure, heart disease)
Benefits of balance exercises for seniors
Before you lose hope, the good news is that you can improve your balance at any age.
Research published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has shown that fall prevention exercises, including balancing, reduced injury-causing falls in adults over the age of 60.Just a few of the other benefits of balance exercises for seniors include:
- Improved posture
- Improves stability
- Improved muscle strength
- Improved coordination
- More ease in carrying out day-to-day activities
10 Exercises to Improve Balance for Seniors
These exercises incorporate strengthening, stability, and coordination as all play important roles in our ability to balance with confidence.
Allow yourself to go at your own pace. With practice, repetition, and patience you will see improvements.
The following exercises can be done at home without the use of specialist equipment.
However, a solid chair (not one on wheels) can be an ideal prop if you would like the reassurance of some support while practicing these exercises, especially as you begin to familiarize yourself with these movements.
If you are just starting out you could place a chair on either side of you so that you can place a hand on each if or when you wish to.
Alternatively, you might prefer to practice these exercises by a wall.
Speak with your doctor before doing any of the following exercises to make sure they are suitable for you.
#1: Mountain Pose (Tadasana) with Heel Raise
In this Mountain Pose variation, the addition of the heel raise not only increases the challenge but also helps with stability and leg strength.
With this exercise, it’s normal to feel a bit wobbly at first, so remember that you can do this with a chair or wall at arm’s reach in front of you for reassurance.
- To begin, stand up straight with your feet hip distance apart and the soles of your feet grounded.
- Settle your gaze in front of you on something at your eye level that isn’t moving.
- As you inhale, slowly lift up onto the balls of your feet.
- As you exhale, slowly lower your heels back down to the start position on the ground.
- When you feel comfortable with this lifting and lowering movement, hold the balance on the balls of your feet for 5 seconds before slowly lowering your heels back down.
Repeat this up to 20 times.
#2: Single Leg Balance
- Stand up straight with your feet grounded. If you are using a chair, stand with it in front of you within arm’s reach.
- Transfer your weight onto your right leg and slowly lift your left foot, bringing your knee up so that the sole of your left foot is parallel to the floor.
- Work up to holding this balance (eventually without a chair) for up to 60 seconds.
- Repeat the above steps, standing on your right leg.
Do this up to 5 times on each leg.
Practice tip for balancing exercises involving standing on one leg:
Contracting the muscles in your standing leg and softening your gaze to a fixed spot in front of you can help with staying steady when balancing.
#3: Tree Pose (Vrikshasana)
A progression from Single Leg Balance, Tree Pose involves external rotation of the hip.
- Stand up straight with your feet hip distance apart and place your hands on your hips or onto a chair or wall in front of you.
- Slowly bring your weight onto your left foot.
- Lift your right foot and turn your right knee out so that the sole of your right foot faces the inside of your left leg. (This movement is externally rotating your right hip).
- Place the sole of your right foot anywhere above or below your left knee on the inside of your left leg – at your left ankle with big toe resting on the ground, lower left leg or left thigh.
- Please note: you want to avoid pressing your right foot into the side of your left knee because the knee is a hinge joint and does not like sideways pressure.
- If you feel stable and confident here and would like to play with your balance, you can place your palms together in front of your chest (in Anjali Mudra) or reach your arms out to either side at shoulder level.
- Aim to hold your Tree Pose for 30-60 seconds.
Repeat Tree Pose standing on your right leg.
#4: Rock The Boat
This is another progression from the Single Leg Balance.
- Stand up straight with your feet grounded and approximately hip distance apart.
- Imagine there is a piece of string at the crown of your head, lengthening your spine towards the sky, while your chin stays parallel to the ground.
- Keeping your movements slow and steady, shift your weight to your right foot then lift your left foot off the ground so that your left knee is bent with your left foot behind you.
- Hold this balance for as long as you can, working up to 20-30 seconds.
- When you’re ready to switch sides, carefully lower your left foot back to the ground and slowly transfer your weight onto your left foot.
- Lift your right foot off the ground, so that your right knee is bent with your right foot behind you.
- Hold here for as long as you again, again working up to 20-30 seconds.
Repeat this sequence 5-10 times on each leg.
#5: Heel-To-Toe Walking
This leg-strengthening exercise improves your ability to walk without falling, as well as allowing you to work on your balance.
You will be walking in a straight line for this exercise, so imagine that you’re on a tightrope and keep your movements as steady and controlled as possible.
You can walk alongside a wall for extra reassurance.
- Step your right foot in front of your left so that your right heel touches the tips of your left toes.
- Carefully shift your weight forward to lower the sole of your right foot.
- When your right foot feels stable, step your left foot in front of your right so that your left heel toes the tips of your right toes.
- Carefully shift your weight forward to lower the sole of your left foot.
Repeat the above steps until you have walked for about 10-20 steps.
#6: Standing Twist
This standing balance involves an extra element of challenge with some arm coordination.
- If you are using a chair, stand with it in front of you within arm’s reach. Place your left hand on the chair. Otherwise, place your left hand on your left hip.
- Transfer your weight onto your left foot. Slowly lift your right foot, bending your knee so that the sole of your right foot is parallel to the ground.
- Draw a half circle with your right arm by lifting your right arm in front of you (shoulder level) then reaching it up (right fingers reaching to the sky) and back (fingers reaching towards the wall behind you).
- Trace your half-circle back the same way you came with your right arm, ending with your right arm reaching in front of you at shoulder level.
- Keep your gaze forward and your right leg lifted throughout.
Repeat this once more before doing the same exercise standing on your right leg.
Squats are a great exercise to help our balance – they strengthen the gluteal and leg muscles as well as utilize the core muscles.
However, squats can be challenging if you are living with joint or knee issues. This is where the sit-to-standing exercise can be a more accessible alternative.
As the name implies, you will require a chair for this exercise.
- Stand up straight with your feet hip distance apart, with a chair behind you.
- Begin to bend your knees and as slowly as possible, sit down on the chair.
- Once seated on the chair, take a breath. Then, with the soles of your feet grounded, steadily stand up straight without using your arms.
- If doing this without using your arms still feels challenging, practice this movement with a second chair in front of you until you feel ready to do this without the extra support.
Repeat this sit-to-standing sequence 10 times.
If you are very confident with squatting and don’t have any joint issues, you can practice the above steps by sitting and standing from an imaginary chair behind you.
#8: Forward Lunge
This strengthening exercise is also good for working on your stability.
When we feel unsteady on our feet, it’s usually instinctive to step forward to recover our balance. This is where practicing lunges regularly can be helpful.
- Start by standing up straight with your feet hip distance apart and place your hands on your hips.
- Aiming to keep this hip distance space between your feet, carefully step your right foot forward, bending your right knee and bringing some weight onto the sole of your right foot.
- Continue to lower into your lunge as far as feels comfortable. As a guide for the direction you’re moving in, think of aiming your right thigh parallel to the floor.
- Breathe steadily and hold the lunge for a few seconds before carefully stepping your right foot back to the start position.
- Repeat the above with your left foot forward.
Work up to holding each lunge for 30 seconds and repeat on each leg 5 times.
If you’d like some extra guidance as you get used to this exercise, practice with a chair or a wall in front of you.
#9: Star Pose / Side Leg Raises
This exercise involves bringing more of your weight over to one side of the body.
So, if you are bringing your weight onto your right leg and you want to use a chair, then place it on your right side.
- Start by standing up straight with your feet hip distance apart and the soles of your feet grounded.
- Moving slowly and steadily, bring your weight onto your right leg and lift your left leg out to your left side. This is where you might wish to place your right hand on a chair.
- If you feel confident and steady here, this is where you can choose to complete your Star Pose shape by reaching both arms up into a wide ‘V’ shape.
- Aim to hold your Star Pose for up to 5 seconds.
- Carefully return to your start position by lowering your left leg and arms by your sides.
- Repeat the above steps standing on your left leg.
Do Star Pose 5-10 times on each leg.
#10: Warrior 3 / Virabhadrasana 3 / Back Leg Raises
This variation of Warrior 3 is a hip extension exercise, which also strengthens the gluteal muscles and lower back.
- If you are using a chair or wall, stand with it in front of you within arm’s reach.
- Stand with your feet hip distance apart.
- Slowly extend your right leg back, resting the tip of your right big toe on the ground.
- If you feel stable and confident to challenge your balance further, lift your right foot so that your right toes point towards the ground.
- From here you can either keep your arms where they are or hover one or both arms in front of you or out to either side.
Hold this position for a couple of seconds before carefully returning to your starting position.
Repeat this 5-10 times on each leg.
Suggested further reading:
Balance Exercises for Seniors: Prevent Falls, Improve Stability and Posture with Simple Home Workouts by Michael Smith and Nathalie Seaton.
55 Essential Balance Exercises for Seniors: A Simple Senior-Friendly Guide To Fall Prevention Improving Strength, Stability, Posture & Living A More Independent Life (Including video & illustrated exercises) by Brandon Lee