Question: What can be done to improve balance in seniors? Are there any specific exercises you recommend?
Answer: To maintain your balance while stationary or moving requires a coordinated effort of your nervous and muscular systems. Your nervous system constantly senses whether you are in balance and tells each of your muscles how forcefully to contract to regain or maintain it. If there is a problem with either of these systems your balance will be compromised.
Many older people develop problems with balance despite having normal, properly-functioning nervous systems due to sarcopenia, the age-related loss of muscular strength and size. Fortunately this loss of muscle can be significantly reduced or even reversed with proper strength training at any age.
If the problem with your balance is neurological, depending on the type of problem you might also benefit from practicing the specific activities you are having difficulty with. Don’t make the mistake of wasting time learning to balance on gimmicky balance equipment like Bosu balls, balance boards and discs, however. Balances skills are specific and do not transfer between different activities. The skill of maintaining your balance on a wobble board does not transfer to other activities.
If you’ve got too much body fat you can also improve your balance by leaning down. The less you weigh the easier it is for your muscles to move your body or hold it in a position of equilibrium to maintain your balance. While losing fat is primarily a matter of diet, for the best possible results you should also be strength training.
Exercise and balance skills practice are distinct activities that need to be performed separately. Do not make the common mistake of trying to combine the two by either adding balance challenges to your workouts or strength and conditioning challenges to your balance practice sessions.
Exercise is for stimulating improvements in the general factors of functional ability and is made less effective by adding a balance challenge. Choose exercises and equipment that challenge your strength not your balance.
Balance skills are specific and should be practiced the way they are normally performed or the improvements will not transfer. Practice balancing in the positions and during the activities which are difficult for you, but do not add weight to these or alter them to make them more challenging (avoid wobble boards, Bosu balls, and the like).
Choose exercises that do not require you to stand unless they can be performed while holding something for balance or under the close supervision of someone capable of assisting you if necessary. When possible perform exercises on machines which can be used while seated and which can be easily and safely entered and exited (avoid machines which require you to either climb or get down on the ground to use).
To reduce the difficulty of moving between other exercises perform your hip and leg exercises last in your workout. When you finish a leg exercise be cautious. Don’t trust your legs right away, and make sure you are able to stand before you attempt to walk. Don’t attempt to walk if you feel wobbly after any exercise; wait for your legs to recover or get assistance.
For more on strength training for seniors read: