Balance and stability are important at any age, but as we get older the risks associated with a fall are greater and it can take longer to recover.
The good news is that there are plenty of balance exercises that older adults can do in their own home.
Mater at Home physiotherapist Ashleigh Leeson shares some simple tips and safe balance exercises for seniors.
The benefits of balance exercises for seniors
Recent research shows that a well-designed balance exercise program for older adults can assist in preventing falls and may improve independence and overall quality of life. These exercises work by helping you to maintain your centre of gravity, and improve posture, muscle reaction time and mobility, Leeson explains.
In addition to the physical benefits, boosting your balance can also improve brain function, including memory and spatial cognition.
“The better balance you have, the less risk there is of falling over—and falls can, unfortunately, be really serious for people over 65,” says Leeson.
Further evidence suggests that three or more hours a week of strength and balance exercise is optimal for seniors to safely challenge their physical stability.
“The trick with balance exercises is that they need to be moderate to challenging for you to get the full benefit out of doing them,” says Leeson.
When should you start doing balance exercises?
The more physically active you are throughout your life, the better your balance and strength will be as you age.
But Leeson says it’s a good idea to start some formal balance exercises from about 60 years of age.
“It’s preferable to have a level of balance above what’s needed for your day-to-day life so that if you have a trip or a bump, you’re more likely to recover and not actually fall over.”
Leeson recommends seeing a physiotherapist if:
- you regularly lose your balance and need to grab onto something to steady yourself
- you have had a fall or a near miss
- you use walking aids
- you struggle with daily living activities such as cooking and cleaning.
To ensure that you can safely challenge yourself, Leeson recommends performing the following exercises nearby a solid surface, such as a kitchen bench or table, in case you lose your balance.
Make sure the floors are clear of any trip hazards and that you’re wearing sturdy shoes (closed-in shoes with laces are ideal).
“If you have any concerns, it’s a good idea to have somebody who doesn't have any issues with their balance there to support you,” says Leeson. “If that’s not possible, it’s best to have a physio show you some safer exercises to try.”
Five simple strength and balance exercises
Exercise 1: Single-limb stance
Stand up straight behind a chair and hold on to the back of it for support.
Lift your right foot off the floor so that you’re balancing on your left foot. Hold that position for as long as is comfortable before lowering your foot and repeating on the other side.
The goal is to eventually stand on each foot without holding onto the chair and to hold that pose for up to one minute.
Exercise 2: Heel-to-toe walk
This walking exercise strengthens your legs, to help prevent falls.
Stand with your right foot in front of your left, with the heel of your right foot just touching the toes of your left.
Step your left foot forwards to the same position in front of your right, putting your weight on that heel as you place it down, then shifting your weight onto your toes in a slow, rolling motion.
Repeat to bring your right foot forwards again and continue walking like this for 20 steps.
Exercise 3: Marching on the spot
Stand up straight, with your feet hip-width apart and both feet pressed firmly into the floor.
Transfer your weight onto your right foot and slowly lift your left foot off the floor. Hold that position for up to 30 seconds.
Slowly lower your left foot to the floor, transfer your weight to that foot, and lift your right foot off the floor.
You are essentially marching on the spot in a controlled way. Repeat this exercise five times. As you progress, gradually work your way up to doing more repetitions.
Exercise 4: Clock reach
Stand up straight, with the chair to your left, and place your left hand on it for support.
Picture yourself standing in the centre of a clock: The number 12 is directly in front of you and the number six is directly behind you.
Using slow and controlled movements, lift your right knee and extend your right arm forwards at shoulder height, to point to 12. Keeping your knee raised and both hips relaxed, and looking straight ahead throughout, take your right arm out sideways to point to three, pause there, then take it back towards six, only going as far back as is comfortable. Slowly bring your arm forwards again to three, then 12, then lower it back to your side, and return your right foot to the floor.
Turn to face the opposite direction to repeat on that side. Do two repetitions of this exercise on each side.
Exercise 5: Heel-toe raisers
Stand up straight with your feet together. Using slow and controlled movements, rock forwards onto your toes then back onto your heels.
Be careful, as this exercise will really test your balance. Don’t do this movement too quickly or you may stumble. If this is too difficult, try doing the move with your feet shoulder-width apart.
As you progress, move back and forth a bit faster and hold for a few seconds in the toe and heel positions.
Make balance exercises part of a regular routine
Leeson recommends starting by doing these exercises for 10 minutes a day on most days.
Other physical activity such as joining a group exercise class or going for walks (as long as you feel steady enough to walk outdoors) can also be very beneficial.
Remember not to do any exercises that cause pain or make you feel unstable on your feet. If this does happen, see your physiotherapist.
For more information visit the safe exercises at home website.
This article is proudly supported by Mater at Home’s physiotherapy experts, with contribution from Dr. Stephanie Fu BPhty, MPhty, PHD, FACP.