Each year, 36 million adults suffer a fall, and poor balance is often to blame. But even if your balance feels “off,” you aren’t doomed. There are steps you can take to improve your balance and prevent falls.
Here’s what I’ve learned about improving balance, from a physical therapist’s perspective.
Improve Your Balance: Yes, it’s possible
It’s one of the most common questions I hear in the clinic:
Can my balance actually improve?
The answer is a resounding, Yes!
Balance declines most often during these events:
- After a surgery or injury
- With age (usually 50+)
- From a change in medication
- As a symptom of a disease (vertigo, meniere’s, etc.)
In ALL of these situations, you can improve your balance using:
These three factors play a huge part in the balance training techniques I teach my patients.
Let’s take a look at how repetition, speed, and resistance each influence your balance.
Repetition: Key to Better Balance
Building muscle takes time and consistency, so when you want to improve your strength, you must exercise beyond one repetition.
Likewise, building better balance requires you to be consistent in your training. Research shows that repetition is a major factor in improving balance.
A recent study showed that high-repetition, low-resistance training was effective in improving balance among people age 55+. This finding is really promising, because it means the average person can improve their balance without heavy weights or intimidating gym equipment.
What do I mean by repetition?
In the clinic, when I work with people who have poor balance, one of the first things I do is test their ability to stand on one leg.
I have them try both sides and count how many seconds they can do this.
Then I have them repeat it on each leg. If they’ve demonstrated some improvement (which many do), I have them try again.
Most of the time, their ability to remain stable on one leg improves after just a few seconds. The simple act of deliberately standing on one leg and focusing on balance became easier the second and third time around.
Patients can usually see the difference right away, which makes my job easier when I recommend they practice this drill every day at home.
But repetition goes beyond standing on one leg a few times.
I also give my patients dynamic stability drills that challenge them to control their foot placement while tapping various heights.
Cone Taps on Balance Pad
Here’s an example of a dynamic stability exercise, to be repeated 20-30 times on each leg.
Position: Stand on a balance pad with a counter nearby for support. Place a cone or cup upside down on the floor in front of you.
Movement: Tap the cone or cup with your foot, aiming to control your movement so that it’s a very light tap. Bring your foot back to stand before switching legs or repeating the movement.
Repeat: 20-30 times each leg, alternating legs if needed.
Balance Pad: You can find this balance pad on Amazon (see below)
Cone – Use a plastic cup or cone as a target to tap your foot.
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Speed: Slow down for better balance
It’s almost always more difficult to perform a movement or balance exercise slowly than quickly.
But if you slow down and focus on controlled movements, you’ll put yourself in the best position to train correctly and improve your balance.
For example, when balancing on one leg, slowing down to engage your leg and glute muscles can make a huge difference!
Try this: Stand tall in front of a countertop, holding onto it for support as needed. Shift your weight to stand on one leg then return to standing on both legs.
Repeat this test of your balance, but this time, squeeze your buttocks muscles first, before you shift your weight. Continue squeezing your buttocks muscles as you stand on one leg. Most people feel more stable this way!
Even if you were able to perform a single-leg stance in either case, the fact is that you had more control and stability when you took the time to slow down and engage your core stabilizer muscles.
This concept applies to balance board exercise as well. Using a balance board is a great way to work on balance at home. But your balance board exercises will be most effective when you use slow movement to control the motion.
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Does everything have to be slow?
Going slow is a good way to start any balance training. Focusing on smooth, clean, and precise movements will help you improve your balance and stability.
However, you can also improve your balance by varying your speeds.
For example, you could set a metronome to click at a higher rate as you perform the foot taps I demonstrated above. You could also incorporate various surfaces (cones of different heights or placements, for example) to work on accuracy as well as coordination and timing.
Generally, I recommend starting slow and focusing on smooth, controlled movements, only adding speed and variation as you make progress.
Resistance: Improving Balance and Strength
From these studies, we know that strengthening the legs, hips, and trunk muscles is a great way to improve balance.
Our muscles actually have sensory receptors that react when the muscles contract. This critical component of balance is called proprioception.
Commonly referred to as “body awareness,” proprioception describes the body’s ability to know its position in space at any given moment.
Think of standing at the bottom of the stairs at your home. If you want to tap your foot on the step, you simply lift and touch the step.
But do you usually have to think about each step, focusing on how or where your foot will go each time?
Your body navigates stairs by automatically adapting to the proprioception feedback your muscles, tendons, and joints receive as you climb each step.
Resistance training will not only strengthen your muscles but also improve their ability to react to different environments, such as when you ascend stairs. It also has a positive effect on your bones and joints.
This is why it’s so important for physical therapists to assess strength when treating someone for poor balance!
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Can I Get Better Balance Faster?
Your balance will not improve overnight, but may improve over just a few weeks. I encourage my patients to take balance training seriously for at least 3 to 4 weeks before expecting significant results.
But like most strengthening or exercise routines, it can take upwards of 8 weeks to see and feel a difference physically. Don’t give up!
Download my entire balance guide with over 40 exercises created by a Physical Therapist:
21 Days to Better Balance
Improving Balance: The Takeaway
No matter the statistics, poor balance doesn’t have to result in a fall. With time and focus on repetition, speed, and resistance, you and your physical therapist can create a good plan to improve your balance.