Despite what you might think, poor balance isn’t something you’re born with—the difference between shaky steps and sure-footed strides is a matter of practice. In fact, the simplest way to improve your coordination is to stand up. “It’s use it or lose it,” says Julia Valentour, programs coordinator for the American Council on Exercise. “The more we sit and the less active we are, the more likely our balance will deteriorate.”
Why invest time in training better balance? It helps improve posture, spinal stability, sports performance (you don’t want to make a fool of yourself at the company softball game, do you?), and prevents serious injuries. Older adults with poor balance are more likely to trip, stumble, or fall while performing basic daily activities. In fact, 1 in 3 adults ages 65 and older fall each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those spills can lead to some scary injuries to the brain, hips, legs, feet, and even damage to internal organs. Yikes.
How to Improve Your Balance
Training for balance requires that you use all three planes of movement, says Valentour. In everyday life we operate mostly in the saggital, or forward and backward plane, which is involved in everything we do from walking to lifting a dumbbell. To improve your balance and strengthen your core, it’s equally important to perform exercises in the frontal plane (side-to-side movement) and the transverse plane (rotational movement). “When your center of gravity is constantly moving, you have to stabilize so as not to fall over,” says Valentour.
Perform the prescribed number of reps for each exercise before moving on to the next. Complete this workout 2 to 3 times a week on nonconsecutive days for improved balance, a stronger core, and greater spinal stability.
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1. Stability Ball Leg and Arm Lift
Sit on a stability ball, arms by your sides and feet planted wide on the ground for a good base of support. Lift your right leg and extend it in front of you while simultaneously lifting your left arm to shoulder height at your side. Return to starting position and repeat on the left side, lifting your left leg and right arm. Use slow, controlled movements to retain your balance while you alternate lifting for 10 to 12 reps.
Make it harder Place your left foot on the flat side of a Bosu ball with your right foot on the floor. Slowly lift your right leg and left arm as you did in the original exercise, hold for a breath, and return to starting position. Then switch sides, placing your right foot on the Bosu and your left foot on the floor.
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2. Dynamic Balance Leg Swing
Stand with arms by your sides, toes pointed forward. Lift your right leg in front of you to 45-degrees, and then slowly swing your leg behind you to about the same height. That’s 1 rep. Continue swinging your leg back and forth for 10 reps before switching legs.
Make it harder Stand with your left arm extended straight up and your right arm at your side. As you lift the right leg forward, lean your torso backward so that your body creates a straight line from your head to your right foot. When the leg swings back, lean your torso to the front to maintain the straight line. That’s 1 rep. Do 10 reps before switching sides.
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3. Dynamic Balance Step Knee-Up
Stand with arms by your sides and feet hip-width apart. Take a large step forward with your right leg and lift your left knee and hold for a breath. Put your left foot down and step back with your left leg, raise your right knee and hold another breath. That’s 1 rep. Do 10 reps before switching legs.
Make it harder Instead of stepping, hop from one leg to another. Starting on your left leg, leap forward onto your right foot and lift your left knee, holding for a breath. Then hop backward to your left foot and raise your right knee, holding for a breath. Complete the same hop-and-hold exercise leaping side to side.
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4. Lunge Matrix
Imagine you’re in the center of a clock face, facing 12. Lunge forward with your right foot in the direction of 12:00. Be sure your knee and toe point in the same direction and that your knee does not extend past your toes.
Push off your right leg and return to starting position. Step again with the right leg, this time pivoting your body and lunging toward 1:00. Your head, chest, and hips should face the same direction as the leading knee at all times throughout the exercise.
Push off your right leg and return to starting position, facing 12:00. Repeat your lunge toward 2:00. At 3:00, perform a side lunge. Remember to return to starting position, facing 12:00 after every lunge.
At 4:00 and 5:00, pivot over your right shoulder to do a lunge facing behind you. At 6:00, step backward with your right foot to perform a reverse lunge.
At 7:00 and 8:00, pivot over your left shoulder and perform each lunge—still leading with your right foot. At 9:00, cross the right leg over the left and lunge to the side.
Complete the 10:00 and 11:00 lunges by pivoting slightly to the left and lunging forward with your right leg.
Reverse the move, leading with your left leg.
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5. Agility Ladder Drill
This exercise requires you to move with quick feet. Keep the pattern “in-in-out, in-in-out” in mind, as that’s what your feet will be doing in relation to the ladder while you perform the drill.
Stand to the left of the ladder, feet about hip-width apart with knees slightly bent and ready to spring into motion. Step into the first opening of the ladder with your right foot (in), and then step into the same opening with your left foot (in).
Keep the left foot planted inside the ladder and pick up the right foot to step outside the ladder one square-length forward from the left foot (out). Pick up the left foot and step forward one square so that it’s once again in line with the right foot (in). Pick up your right foot and place it into the same square as your left (in).
Step outside the ladder with your left foot, forward one square length from your right foot (out). Pick up the right foot and step forward one square so that it’s in line with the left foot (in). Pick up your left foot and place into the same square as your right (in). Continue this pattern (in-in-out, in-in-out) for the length of the ladder.
For more agility ladder exercises, visit the American Council on Exercise at acefitness.org.