Here’s a test: Stand with one foot directly in front of the other, heel to toe, like you just got pulled over to do a sobriety test. Close your eyes. Try not to wobble or move your feet while standing there for 30 seconds. Then switch your feet so that the one that was in the front is now in the back, and do it again.
How did you do? Solid as a rock? You can skip this article. A little bit wobbly, but didn’t move your feet? Pretty good, there’s still some room for improvement. Moved a foot? This article is for you. Almost fell over? Improving your balance should be one of your top fitness priorities.
In all our striving to burn the fat, tone those buns, improve our speed, and maximize our endurance, balance is fairly unpopular fitness goal. But better balance really yields big returns. Our performance in sports improves as our balance does, in part because better balance means better proprioception. We have a more tuned sense of how our body is positioned, the amount of work being exerted by our various parts, and where we are in space. Skiers, snowboarders, gymnasts, divers, tennis players – they all have great proprioception and balance.
Perhaps it occurred to you as you were trying to maintain your balance that if you bent your knees a bit and engaged your abdomen (i.e., “core”) you were more stable. This is because good balance goes hand in hand with core strength. And core strength, as you probably know (since there’s barely a conversation or article on fitness these days that doesn’t include those two words), is, like, really important.
Beyond how good balance figures into a strong body and better performance, there’s the very significant fact that it translates to fewer injuries. Most of the references I see on improving balance have to do with reducing falls by elderly folks. But lots and lots of exercise traumas, even among younger people, could be prevented by better balance, since they so often hinge on some abrupt movement we make to steady ourselves.
Enough about the reasons why – you knew you needed this as soon as you got wobbly on that balance test. Here’s what to do:
1. Do standing exercise. Everything you do standing – hiking, dancing, walking, skiing, or just standing in place and doing dumbbell exercises with your arms – helps your balance. Sit less. Consider getting a standing desk. If you stand at your desk, you’ll burn more calories, plus you can do your balance exercises at the same time.
2. Practice standing with your feet closer together. Part of what made that test difficult was that you had a small base of support. You’re much more stable with your feet shoulder width apart because your base is wider. So, when standing around the kitchen, or waiting in line, or while doing some standing exercise, like dumbbell curls, try bringing your feet close together.
3. Stand on one foot. That’s an even smaller base. Again, you can do it anywhere. Practice standing on one foot while standing in line, while cooking or doing dishes, or brushing your teeth. Always remember to switch feet at some point so you have good balance on both sides. There are lots of ways to stand on one foot. Here are some options:
A. Experiment with shifting 80 percent to one foot and 20 to the other, then reversing it. Then try putting all the weight on one foot and lift the other just half an inch off the ground.
B. Try lifting one leg straight out in front of you – but don’t lean back. Hold it as long as you can.
c. Bend one leg back at the knee (don’t use your hand to hold the ankle).
D. Lift one leg out to the side while keeping your body perfectly straight.
E. Lift one leg out to the side while bending away to the other side. See if you can almost touch the floor on the side opposite the raised leg.
Always maintain good form – strong abdomen, slightly bend knee on the leg that’s grounded, whole body engaged. In each position count how long you can hold it. At first it might be just a couple seconds. Make a game out of it. Shoot for longer and longer. Then try doing upper body exercises or chores while on one leg.
4. For an added challenge, do any of the one-legged balancing exercises while standing on a pillow or anything else that’s less stable than the floor – a skateboard, a BOSU ball (those half-balls you see at the gym), a walrus. Get creative.
5. Do it with your eyes closed. When you take visual cues out of the equation, it’s much harder to balance. So, try with closed eyes anything you do standing up, including the exercises in this list.
I wish you a more balanced life. And I was kidding about the walrus. A sea lion is really a much better idea.
Dr. Peter Borten
Copyright 2012 by Peter Borten. No reproduction allowed in any form without permission.