Better balance: Activities to keep you on an even keel

Sports, walking, and stair climbing may boost balance and keep a stumble from turning into a bad fall.

balance exercisesWhen you want to improve your balance and reduce the risk of falls, you might turn to a physical therapist for an evaluation and special exercises. But sometimes other types of physical activity can do the job. "People are surprised at how adding just a little extra activity can make a big difference with their balance," says Joy Orpin, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Balance problems

Balance impairment may be linked to changes in vision or muscle strength, joint stiffness or pain, inner ear problems, or decreased sensation due to joint surgery, ankle sprains, or neuropathy (nerve damage that causes numbness or burning, especially in the feet). Other contributors to poor balance include a sedentary lifestyle or medication side effects.

Don't wait until your balance becomes unsteady. Avoid a fall and potential injury by addressing underlying conditions that may lead to trouble. If your balance is already in good shape, it's important to keep it intact.

Try these activities

One easy way to keep your balance on an even keel is to add some of the following exercises and activities to your day.

Walking. Walking is good for muscles and bones, and brisk walking is aerobic exercise—the kind that gets your heart and lungs pumping. To improve balance, slow down on a brisk walk, and walk sideways or backward for 10 steps. "Walking sideways gives your body a little practice with taking a step sideways, which is an important reaction strategy to prevent a fall. Backward walking challenges your body's other balance systems, since you can't see where you are going," Orpin says.

Stair climbing. "When you climb without holding onto the railing, it helps train your body to balance on one leg and improves leg stability. Coming down the stairs forces you to control foot placement since you are working against gravity," says Orpin. Stair climbing also builds strength in your legs and core (abdominal) muscles. Orpin warns against stair climbing without holding onto the railing if you have any balance issues, if you are unable to stand on one foot for at least seven seconds, and if you are unable to climb with one foot over the other.

Golf. "Golf includes a lot of weight shifting as you swing and your trunk rotates. That weight shifting challenges your balance," Orpin says. Golf also works your core and arm muscles, and your legs get a workout if you skip the golf cart and walk the course.

Tennis. "There's a lot of forward and sideways movement in tennis, and your coordination and reaction time are challenged, which helps balance," explains Orpin. Tennis also counts as an aerobic activity, and it helps keep your muscles strong.

Soccer. Playing soccer gives your balance a number of challenges. "There are a lot of things going on around you that you have to react to — the ball, the players. Your body has to make adjustments throughout the game," Orpin says. "That translates to everyday life when you have to adjust your pace in a crowd or react to something quickly in your environment."

Tai chi or yoga. These ancient exercise regimens combine postures and breathing methods that train your body to shift in space and control movement. "They push your limits of stability sideways, backward, and forward," says Orpin. "The further we can push our limits of stability, the more our body is able to maintain balance without having to take a step to prevent falling."

Unsure about balance?

Consider visiting a physical therapist for a balance evaluation. "I look at the key systems that make up balance. I'll ask about your medications and vision, and I'll screen muscle strength, sensation, and inner ear function. From there I will teach you a personalized program that can be added into your lifestyle to improve balance," says Joy Orpin, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Balance exercises may include balancing on one leg, weight-shifting activities, and agility exercises like jumping.

Tips to start

Get your doctor's okay before starting any of these activities, especially if you have balance, heart, or lung problems.

You can find adult soccer teams, tai chi classes, or yoga classes by contacting your local YMCA, community center, or soccer league.

If you're not a tennis or golf player, it's not too late to take up the sport. Some nonprofit groups, such as the City Parks Foundation in New York (www.cityparksfoundation.org), offer free lessons for older adults.

For other ideas to improve balance, check out the Harvard Special Health Report Better Balance (www.health.harvard.edu/BB).

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