Boost long-term health with balance training

Incorporating balance training in a fitness routine can help improve exercise performance and help prevent falls and injuries.

Balance training is an aspect of fitness that is sometimes forgotten. One may participate in regular cardio exercise or weight-training and think that they are reaching every component of fitness. But have they thought about balance training?

“Balance training improves your body’s ability to react quickly to everyday missteps, which in turn helps prevent falls,” says Benjamin Nesseim, M.D., family physician at Mayo Clinic Health System – Franciscan Healthcare in Waukon. “Improved performance and injury prevention can also be significantly influenced with balance training during exercise.”

Whether standing, kneeling, sitting or squatting, balance refers to the ability to stay upright and steady. Several sensory systems in the body contribute to good balance explains Dr. Nesseim. Vision, inner ear and joint receptors provide a sense of where a body is in space. The neuromuscular system synthesizes this information to give the stability needed to keep the body upright, with weight evenly distributed.

Dr. Nesseim suggests these techniques to incorporate balance activities into a person’s day:

1. Change your base of support
Start by standing with your feet closer together, walking by putting one foot directly in front of the other and work your way up to balancing on one leg.
· Pretend you’re on a balance beam. This will require you to stand with your feet closer together and to walk by putting one foot directly in front of the other.
· Pretend you’re a flamingo. This will help you practice balancing on one foot and can be done while making dinner, watching the news or waiting for your coffee to brew.

2. Change your surface
While many of us are used to standing on flat ground, a part of balance training is learning to stand on uneven surfaces.
· These uneven surfaces can include: pillows, mats, foam pads or disks, balance balls.
· Try standing with your feet close together or on one leg if you’re able.
· You can also look for variable terrain to walk on, such as a hiking trail or sandy beach. Standing on a floating dock or bridge can be a fun challenge.

3. Close your eyes
Closing your eyes while balancing can be tricky, but it’s a good exercise to work up to. Try closing your eyes while standing with your feet together, pretending to walk on a balance beam, balancing on one leg or walking on a varying surface. You may need to rely on a partner for support.

4. Turn your head or look up and down
While engaging in the foot and leg positions as noted above, turn your head or look up and down. You can also try this while balancing on an unstable surface. If you are feeling up to the challenge, try both at the same time and close your eyes too!

5. Add movement elsewhere
While standing on one leg, put your arms out in a T position and make small circular motions for 30 seconds and then try it in the opposite direction. You can work your way up and increase your time. Try simultaneously turning your head side to side once this becomes easy.

6. Experiments
Balance training can be both easy and fun and incorporated into your daily activity or exercise routine. “Tailor these exercises to your skill level - you should be challenged but not to the degree that it is difficult to perform them safely,” says Dr. Nesseim. Strive to incorporate balance exercises into your life for at least a few minutes each day.

Try these experiments to get started:

Practice standing on one leg like a flamingo for 45 seconds during phone calls or television commercials, then switch sides. Work your way up to closing your eyes.

Pretend you’re on a balance beam by lining up several pillows end to end and walking across them. Walk on a flat surface if this is too challenging. Experiment with slowly turning your head side to side, then up and down while you are walking.

Try a class designed to challenge and enhance your balance, such as tai chi, Pilates or yoga.

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