Reclaiming a sense of balance and security is a top fitness goal for many of the senior clients we see at Prime of Life Fitness. It's disturbing and frightening to feel unsteady on your feet and at risk of taking a fall.
Fortunately, balance is really a set of movement skills that can be retrained and relearned. Your balance can improve at any age, but be aware that good balance involves a complex combination of muscle strength and stability and movement coordination. It takes time to retrain your muscles and nervous system to work together to maintain your balance, so be patient and careful as you begin the balance retraining process.
Before you even begin, start by checking out How to Improve Balance: Tips for Baby Boomers and Seniors, especially the first tip about seeing your doctor. You need to rule out balance issues caused by your medications or by an inner ear problem before you begin any balance exercises.
The first step in developing your sense of static balance is getting a feel for your center of gravity and finding a stable stance. An important principle of balance is that a wider stance and a lower center of gravity is more stable than a narrow stance and higher center of gravity. Let's look at some examples:
1. Normal Stance
In a normal stance, your feet are about hip distance apart. That means your feet are positioned just below your hip bones. When someone says "stand with your feet hip-width," this is what they mean.
This is the position most people will take if you ask them to stand normally, and this is also the position most of us begin from when we're walking.
2. Narrow Stance
In a narrow stance the feet are positioned close together. (The adorable tuxedo kitty is entirely optional for assuming this stance.) If you compare the two pictures, you'll see that in a normal stance your base of support is about 12-15 inches wide, while in a narrow stance your base of support is only 6-8 inches wide.
You can feel the difference this makes if you ask a friend to give you a gentle push while you try out each stance. (Not hard enough to push you over, just enough to make you sway a little bit off center.) You should feel that in the narrow stance you're pretty easy to dislodge.
3. Wide Stance
Now try out a wide stance. Bring your feet to shoulder width or slightly wider. Your base of support will now be more like 18-20 inches, and you should feel much more stable than you did in the narrow stance.
Have your friend give you the same gentle push and see if you don't feel more stable in this wider stance.
4. Lower Center of Gravity
For most people, the body's center of gravity is a spot in the abdomen slightly below the navel and slightly in front of the spine.
From your wider stance, put a slight bend in your knees, which will effectively lower your center of gravity by a few inches. This should feel more stable yet, because in addition to lowering your center of gravity, that slight bend inthe knees requires you to engage the muscles in the abdomen, hips and legs.
Now, think about standing on one foot (but don't actually try it yet, unless you have something to hold on to). On one foot, your base of support is only 4 or 5 inches wide, and you could be knocked over with a feather.
And what do you do every time you take a step? You balance on one foot for just a second while you bring the other foot to the front. Maintaining that ability to balance on a very narrow base of support is essential to maintaining your mobility and independence as you age.
In future posts we'll describe some exercises that will help you build up to balancing on one foot, but for now, practice varying the width of your stance and the height of your center of gravity. Next time you find yourself standing on a bus or train, instead of just holding onto the pole for dear life, try widening your stance and putting a slight bend in your knees. You'll be amazed by how stable you are while the driver is lurching around.
For more beginning balance exercises, check out these body awareness balance exercises.
(Image credit: Prime of Life Fitness)