Can you hop on one foot? Walk on a beam? Sit on a ball without toppling over? These exercises may sound like child’s play, but they’re actually sophisticated movements that build up physical balance, a skill that’s essential well into adulthood.
Balance might not have the cachet of flat abdominals or a six-minute mile, but it’s remarkable all the same: the result of your brain, eyes, sense of touch, inner ears, and every joint and muscle in your body working in concert. Great balance means great posture, whether you’re sitting still, running, or lifting a weight. When you’re balanced, left and right, and front and back, are exerting equal effort. No one part of the body is overcompensating for another, and because of this “you suffer from fewer aches and pains,” says Jordan Metzl, a sports-medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery, in New York City, and the author of the new book The Exercise Cure ($27, amazon.com). Whether you spend your free time doing Pilates, taking ballroom-dancing classes, or gardening, balance lets you do it better.
Balance also makes you less accident-prone. In a study conducted last year, researchers at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, wired healthy young subjects with typical balance ability to electrodes and sent them walking on (and falling off) a narrow beam affixed to a moving treadmill. Turns out, when people with good balance start to fall, the sensory motor cortex of the brain (the area that receives and interprets sensations) immediately registers that the body is no longer steady. Neurons that track errors, navigation, spatial orientation, planning, and regulation also become instantly activated, while the eyes suss out the body’s new position and how fast it’s moving in space. The muscles react accordingly and right themselves before you hit the floor. You have roughly 250 to 400 milliseconds to catch a fall, says Daniel Ferris, Ph.D., the study’s lead author and a professor of movement science. For those who have good balance, that’s plenty of time. But for those who have let their balance skills dwindle, it’s not enough and it can quickly lead to a bad spill. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls are the leading cause of nonfatal injuries in the United States.
Think your clumsiness is innate and unchangeable? Not so. Granted, about 50 to 75 percent of your ability to balance depends on genetics. But that leaves 25 to 50 percent that can be cultivated, regardless of age, through plain old hard work. Assuming that you don’t have musculoskeletal issues, “anyone can improve their balance, even learn to do a handstand. Some people, due to genetics, find it easier to perfect; others have to work harder at it,” says Ferris.
Whether your goal is mastering that inverted yoga pose or simply avoiding slips in an icy parking lot, building balance requires a two-pronged approach: training your brain and muscle reflexes so that they detect and react to unstable situations quickly; and conditioning your core muscles (your abdominals, pelvis, hips, and lower back, which form the center of gravity that stabilizes your entire body) so that the reaction is controlled, says Kai Wheeler, a San Diego–based personal trainer and human-movement specialist.
Everyday Habits to Maintain Balance
Building balance is like learning to play an instrument. “You need to create appropriate neuromuscular connections—that is, links between your brain and muscles. Then you need to practice to keep those connections from deteriorating,” says Jonathan Cane, an exercise physiologist and the founder of City Coach Multisport, an endurance-training service in New York City. Older people often have poor balance because they’re sedentary and therefore rusty. Children, in contrast, have wonderful balance because they train every day: constantly experimenting with unstable positions—playing hopscotch, riding a scooter—then bolstering neuromuscular pathways as they grow skilled at those activities, says Metzl.
Fortunately, adults can sneak balance challenges into their all-work-and-no-play schedules. All the ideas here will help to strengthen your core or challenge your reflexes or—even better—do both.
When you’re walking: If you’re on a semiquiet street (no buses whizzing by), try stepping along the curb instead of the sidewalk. You can also practice at home, for instance, by walking where the kitchen floor tiles form a straight line.
When you drop a small object: Pick it up while keeping one leg elevated behind you. As you improve, challenge yourself by lifting the leg higher.
When you’re watching TV: Sit on an exercise ball instead of the sofa. Start with a half-hour sitcom, then gradually build up the time you spend on the ball.
When you’re having a meal: Pull the chair up to the table as close as you can (while still being able to cut your chicken), says Mary Helen Bowers, the founder of Ballet Beautiful, an online-streaming fitness regimen: “This pushes you to sit up straight and pull your center in, actively engaging your core.”
When you’re on a train: Stand with a wide stance, knees slightly bent (as if you were surfing), without holding a railing. Engage your core and leg muscles to help keep from falling over.
When you’re brushing your teeth: Stand on one leg, suggests Metzl. Switch sides every day.
Ready for more challenges? Find balance exercises that you can do at the gym. And if you still can’t steady yourself, it could be your health. Here are five conditions that can cause balance problems.