Health experts have long advocated doing aerobic exercise and strength training on a regular basis, but a new type of activity is now being added to that prescription—balance training.
Startling statistic: Declining balance skills as people age are thought to be a major factor in the 450,000 hospitalizations that occur in the US each year due to falls. Research suggests that up to half of those falls could be prevented with the help of balance exercises.
Good news: Five easy exercises will begin to improve your balance, ankle flexibility, leg strength and overall agility-within days for many people. For best results, spend about 10 minutes performing these exercises every day. If the basic exercises seem too easy, try the advanced versions.
Better Balance Workout
You can strengthen all the key muscles that are critical to your overall sense of balance by simply using the force of your body weight.
When beginning these exercises, stand next to a sturdy chair for added support when necessary. Keep your stomach taut throughout, pretending there's a string pulling up from the top of your head and lengthening your spine. This helps center your body and engages and strengthens your stabilizer muscles (which support your trunk, limit movement in joints and control balance). Be sure to breathe naturally rather than holding your breath, which can throw off your balance. Also, it's ideal to do the exercises barefoot in order to use the muscles in your feet.
Note: These exercises, designed by leading fitness expert and Olympic trainer Joel Harper, are unique in that they help decrease the imbalance that most of us have we all carry more tension in one side of our bodies but also simultaneously strengthen the muscles that support our skeletal structure.*
Purpose: Stretches hips and hamstrings (that run along the back of the thighs).
What to do: Stand with your feet together and bend forward at your waist as far as you comfortably can. Let your arms hang down. If your lower back is stiff or your hamstrings are tight, place your hands on your hips instead of letting them hang down. Let your head hang down to help release tension.
Next, alternate bending one knee slightly for 15 seconds while keeping the other leg straight (keeping both feet flat). Perform a total of three bends per leg. If you feel light-headed from the blood rushing to your head from this position, put your hands on the ground and look straight ahead.
Purpose: Strengthens your core (abdominal and back muscles) and quadriceps (located at the front of the thighs).
*Consult your doctor before starting this or any other exercise program.
What to do: Stand with your left palm flat on your stomach and the top of your right hand on your lower back. Next, lift your right knee in front of you until your thigh is parallel to the floor-if this is too hard, simply go as high as you comfortably can.
While keeping your chest lifted and your stomach pulled in, let your ankle dangle down and sway your lower leg from your knee to your foot from side to side 20 times. Switch legs and repeat.
Advanced version: Do this with your eyes closed.
Purpose: Improves mental focus. For this exercise, use a stretched-out, 10-foot string or some other straight line on the floor that you can easily feel and follow with your bare feet, such as a line of tile grout.
What to do: Stand with arms out to your sides at shoulder height, palms up. Next, walk along the line, imagining that you're walking along a tightrope. Try to look straight ahead the entire time. Walk to the end of the line, then turn and walk back, keeping the line in the middle of your feet. With each step, focus on not shifting your body weight until you feel the string below your foot. Don't move forward until you are centered on the line. Do five times.
Advanced version: Perform the exercise walking backward or with your eyes closed.
Purpose: Strengthens your legs and core.
What to do: With your arms out to your sides at shoulder height and palms facing down, lift your left leg in front of you as far and as high as you can while holding it straight and keeping your toes pointed forward. Next, without touching the ground, sweep your leg under your body and extend it straight back behind you as high as you can, this time with your foot flexed (your toe pulled in toward your knee). Do 10 times. Then switch legs and repeat.
Advanced version: Reach out your arms and hands at shoulder height directly in front of you while simultaneously reaching your leg directly behind you. Switch directions. Aim to be horizontal while balancing on your supporting leg
Purpose: Strengthens lower abdominals, hip flexors (muscles that bring the legs and trunk together in flexion movement) and quadriceps.
What to do: Sit on the floor with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground. Place your hands underneath your legs behind the backs of your knees. Next, pull in your stomach and lift your feet off the ground so that you're balanced on your buttocks. Hold for 30 seconds, keeping your back straight and breathing normally.
Advanced version: Perform this exercise with your palms facing up, one inch from the sides of your knees.
Best Stretch for a Stiff Back
The draping stretch is a great stretch for a stiff back from hours at a desk—and it also promotes good posture—because it pulls the shoulders back and stretches the chest muscles. It requires a large inflated exercise ball, available at sporting goods stores for about $20. (As with any new exercise, get your doctor's OK before beginning.)
Your goal is to lie backward over the ball so that your back is somewhat arched yet fully supported. To get into position, sit on the floor with your knees bent and the ball nestled against your rear end and lower back. Carefully raise your hips and step your feet away little by little until your mid-back, upper back and the back of your head are resting on the ball. Your feet should be flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart...knees bent at about 90 degrees...neck relaxed and tilted back (not too far).. and arms hanging out to the sides. Allow your body to relax as you drape over the ball in this position, enjoying the stretch along your spine. Hold for a minute or two...repeat daily.