Balance Declines as We Age—Here Are 8 Helpful Exercises for Lasting Stability
You may not think much about your balance—until you no longer have it, or you're doing yoga and fighting hard not to topple out of eagle pose. But balance has to do with a lot more than just being able to stand on one leg in a yoga studio. Ultimately, it's critical for everything you do, no matter your age or level of fitness. "Balance improves overall fitness, quality of life, and performance, and decreases risk of injury," says Corey Phelps, personal trainer in Washington, DC, and founder of Cultivate by Corey.
Our underappreciated ability to balance is a key part of what allows us to do everyday tasks, like walking, running, and getting up from a chair. Studies show that how well (or poorly) you perform these mobility skills strongly predicts how likely it is you'll experience more serious events in the future, like falls, hip fractures, and hospitalizations, says Jonathan Bean, MD, MPH, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School.
"Balance, as it relates to function in daily life and activity, has more to do with the ability to quickly contract your muscles to stabilize or produce a desired movement," says Joshua Bonhotal, MS, CSCS, strength coach and vice president of operations of Future Fit, a digital personal training service. "Having better balance means you're able to stop under control, recover momentum, and react quickly. As you age, you lose your ability to perform the quick muscle contractions at twice the rate that general strength declines," Bonhotal says. What's more, if you're not actively training to improve your balance, that decline could accelerate.
How Balance Actually Works
Balancing as we walk, run, jump, or stand requires muscle mass. In addition to giving us strength, our muscles help keep our bones and joints aligned so we remain upright. But balancing also calls for the interaction of three primary sensory systems: One is the visual, what we see—easy enough. Another is the somatosensory, which includes nerve receptors that enable us to feel and touch things and to have a sense of our body in space (known as proprioception). The third is the vestibular, a tiny but complex inner ear system that responds to gravity.
Input comes from all three systems, but for most of us, the dominant one is the visual. Seeing what's in front of and around us triggers a series of neural messages that act as an immediate, reassuring fact-check: Everything in your environment is erect, pointing in the right direction, and therefore, you are too. "This is why so many people find it challenging to stand on one foot with their eyes closed," says Fabio Comana, a lecturer at San Diego State University's School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences. "But that's also why we'll tell someone to close their eyes in balance training. If you take away the visual, the other two sensory systems can become stronger."
Balance Changes as We Age
Accidental injuries are the eighth leading cause of death (right behind diabetes) for people 65 and older—but our balance can be compromised long before we're eligible for Social Security. We may think of age-related balance challenges as the concern of sweetly unsteady grandparents, but as early as our 30s, we begin to lose that all-important muscle mass, as well as experience age-related deterioration in the visual, somatosensory, and vestibular systems.
"The decline is very gradual at the beginning, but by the time you hit 65, the curve drops steeply," says Tanvi Bhatt, PhD, associate professor of physical therapy at the University of Illinois Chicago's College of Applied Health Sciences.
Our visual acuity, including our depth perception and peripheral vision, begins to diminish, and "the proprioceptors embedded throughout the body become less sensitive," Comana says. "So you're not picking up information as quickly or as accurately, and you react more slowly to things that could make you fall." Sensing our own slowness can make us apprehensive, which may be another reason the youthful spring in our step turns into a tentative shuffle. Also, vestibular nerve endings in the inner ear tend to degenerate over time.
To further complicate matters, technology is working against our balance, whatever our age. Blame it on the all-too-common habit of constantly staring into our phones. "One way we maintain balance is by looking at the horizon," Comana says. "Typically in older adults, as their thoracic spine tends to hunch over, their field of vision changes."
A crooked neck could make someone go from looking 300 feet ahead to 50. Plus, the physical misalignment weakens muscles and stability. But now, thanks to phones and computers, "these effects are becoming more evident in younger people—even the college students I teach," Comana says.
How to Improve and Maintain Good Balance
The great news is, no matter how old you are, "with repeated practice, you can maintain or enhance your balance," Bhatt says. It's like learning to play an instrument. "You need to create appropriate neuromuscular connections—that is, links between your brain and muscles," explains Jonathan Cane, an exercise physiologist and the founder of City Coach Multisport, an endurance-training service in New York City. "Then you need to practice to keep those connections from deteriorating."
This is where balance training comes into play. While your balance will change from day to day—injury, muscular fatigue, soreness, and lack of sleep can all affect balance, Bonhotal notes—the key is to work on it regularly, daily if possible, but every other day at a minimum. You can start very small by standing on one leg while you brush your teeth, or try picking up dropped objects while keeping one leg elevated behind you (as you improve, challenge yourself by lifting the elevated leg even higher). If you're short on time, space, or energy, an easy and effective balance builder is standing on one leg with eyes closed for as long as you can until you lose balance (time it!), then switch sides. Watch your time get longer with practice.
Generally, Bonhotal says you're already getting a good dose of balance training if you're doing moves like these when you exercise:
- Single-leg exercises (like step-ups)
- Exercises where you're in split stances, like lunges
- Exercises where the load is unbalanced, meaning you're holding or moving a weight only on one side
- Core exercises
If any of these are part of your regular fitness routine, you might only need five to 10 minutes of structured balance training on days you're not doing any of them. But if you're looking to get more targeted balance training into your life, here are more excellent exercises that specifically help build balance and stability.