Balance problems are often associated with old age. However, your balance can start to deteriorate as early as your 30s. This is because your muscle mass and strength gradually decrease from this age onwards.
Your muscles, alongside your joints and the ligaments that hold them in place, play a major role in your ability to balance. This is in addition to your vision and signals from your inner ears, which both help your brain determine your position relative to the world around you and, consequently, your ability to balance.
Conditions that affect your eyes or ears, as well as injury, wear and tear or weakness in your muscles, joints or ligaments can all, therefore, lead to balance and stability problems.
Balance problems can affect your coordination, mobility and flexibility, which in turn can make everyday tasks more difficult, increase your risk of trips and falls, and reduce your athletic performance.
Investing time in exercises to improve your balance can, therefore, have a positive impact on your quality of life today but also help protect you against balance problems as you get older, so you can continue to enjoy an active lifestyle. An additional benefit of balance exercises is that they can promote mindfulness and consequently improve your mental health.
Regular balance exercises can help strengthen your muscles, especially your core muscles, which will improve your stability. However, these exercises will not improve balance problems caused by underlying health conditions — in these cases, you should seek appropriate medical treatment.
Consider incorporating several of the following balance exercises into your routine to improve your balance:
1. Tandem standing and tandem walking
Tandem standing involves standing up with one foot placed directly in front of the other, with the heel of your front foot just touching the toes of your back foot. If you are confident balancing in this position, try tandem walking. This involves walking in a straight line by placing one foot directly in front of the other — as with tandem standing, the heel of your front foot should just touch the toes of your back foot.
2. Grapevine walking
Grapevine walking involves walking sideways by crossing one foot over the other eg cross your right foot over your left foot, and then bring your left foot back around to meet it.
Walk sideways in one direction for five steps and then walk sideways in the other direction for five steps — this will ensure both sides of your body get a workout. The smaller the steps you take, the more challenging it will be to maintain your balance.
3. Strength training
Strength training can help combat the loss of muscle mass that occurs from your early 30s onwards. You don’t need to go to the gym or even use weights to strengthen your muscles.
Simple strength-training exercises that you can do at home include squats, lunges and step-ups — make sure you practise the correct form and movement to avoid injury and maximise the benefits. These exercises focus on your lower limbs and can help strengthen your hip and knee joints, which will improve your balance.
4. Balance poses
When performing balance poses, always ensure you’re within arm’s reach of a chair, table or something else you can hold onto if you feel wobbly. You can start by bending one leg up at the knee so that you are balancing on the other leg. If you find this easy, try closing your eyes — by removing one of the senses you use to balance, your muscles will need to work harder to keep you stable.
As your balance improves and you feel more confident, you can move on to more challenging balance poses, such as the hatha yoga asanas, tree pose and warrior III pose.
5. Seated ball balance
If you have an exercise ball, you can try seated ball balances. Sit on your exercise ball, ensuring your back is straight, your abdominal muscles are contracted, and your feet are flat on the floor. With your arms at your side or holding onto the ball, raise one leg out in front of you until it is straight. Hold this position for five seconds, and then repeat this move with the other leg.
Try five to 10 repetitions and if you find this easy, repeat the exercise with your hands placed behind your head.
When performing these balance exercises, you will probably find that one side of your body is stronger than the other and better able to remain stable when balancing. You can, therefore, repeat these exercises more frequently for your weaker side.
Although balance exercises can improve your stability, not all balance problems can be resolved with exercise. Certain balance disorders need medical treatment.
The most common balance disorders are due to problems with your inner ear as this contains your vestibular system, which helps control your balance. Inner ear balance disorders include:
You can also experience balance problems due to low blood pressure and taking certain medications (eg certain anti-depressants, blood pressure medications and sedatives).
If you’re concerned about your balance or experience balance problems alongside other symptoms, including blurred vision, changes in your heart rate or blood pressure, dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea or vomiting, see your GP.
Your GP will discuss your symptoms and medical history and can advise you on the next steps, which may include treatment to address an underlying health condition.
If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on the subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Spire hospital.
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