How to improve balance? When you get older, nobody’s laughing about balance—falling is one of the most serious medical problems facing old people.
In fact, balance is a crucial survival skill, but it’s also perishable. The muscles we use to stand tall weaken ever so gradually after we hit 30 (yes, only 30). The length of our stride shortens, the pace of our steps slows, and vision—critical to coordination—becomes fuzzier. Even menopause can make our gait a tad more wobbly. Aging, however, isn’t the only reason people lose their sense of stability. Balance is really ‘use it or lose it. You can maintain it if you stay active.
How well we keep our balance in midlife can protect us from what lies ahead: One in three adults over age 65 takes a serious tumble each year. Avoiding falls means a longer life: About 20% of women who fracture a hip become permanently disabled, and another 20% die within a year. In fact, health problems linked to hip fractures result in more women’s deaths each year than breast cancer does.
But an enhanced sense of stability doesn’t just help protect you from future falls. There are immediate health benefits—better mobility, fewer injuries, greater capacity to push yourself harder during workouts—that increase overall fitness.
The problem is that people are often unaware that their coordination is slipping. While there are hallmarks of clumsiness—such as poor handwriting and constantly banged-up shins and knees—even naturally agile people need to work to boost balance with age. Balance is a separate system, just like strength or flexibility. You can improve it if you continue to challenge it.
Walk heel to toe
The same sobriety field test cops give drunk drivers also improves balance. Take 20 steps forward, heel to toe. Then walk backward, with toe to heel, in a straight line.
Sturdy legs can help prevent a stumble from turning into a fall. To build quads, start with a simple squat: With feet hip-width apart, bend knees and hips and slowly lower yourself as if sitting in a chair behind you. Keep arms straight out, abs tight, back straight, and knees above shoelaces. Stop when thighs are parallel to the floor (or as close as you can get), then contract glutes as you stand back up. Aim for 3 sets of 10, with a 1-minute break after each set.
Practice the force
It takes muscle strength to get out of a chair, but it takes muscle force to do it quickly. That force—the ability to get your leg in the right place in a nanosecond—is important in preventing falls. We lose muscle force faster than strength, and according to new research, it takes older women longer to build it back up. Try this move: Instead of gingerly rising from a chair, once in a while leap out of it so forcefully that you need to take a few running steps after you do so. (You can use your arms to gain momentum.) The explosiveness of that action builds power. Side-to-side and back-to-front muscle movements have the same effect, such as when you play tennis or basketball.