Image for balancing exercise articleDo you believe falling is increasingly inevitable as you age? It is true that more and more people fall as they get older. But, did you know there are steps you can take to prevent falls?

Impaired balance, a major risk factor for falling, often worsens with age. It may worsen because of decreased strength, agility, and flexibility, or as a result of illness, sensory impairment, or certain medicines. If you have chronic pain, this can also increase your risk of falling. But, certain exercises may improve balance in people of all ages. Read on about balancing acts, which you may want to try at home to minimize falls and remain independent for as long as possible.

Research: Paving the Way to Steadier Steps

Studies have shown that people who perform regular exercises to improve lower body strength and balance can decrease their risk of falls and fall-related injuries. In addition, some research supports the practice of tai chi, a combination of moving yoga and meditation, to reduce falls.

Before Getting Started

Keep in mind that although exercise may reduce fall-related fractures in healthy seniors, it may increase risk in seniors with functional limitations. Therefore, it is important to check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program, including the exercises listed below. Assistance during exercise, or an organized exercise program, may be necessary for some people.

Also, be aware that obstacles in the home may contribute to loss of balance and subsequent falls. For people age 65 or older, most falls occur in or around the home. Start by removing obstacles in your home that may contribute to loss of balance:

  • Provide adequate lighting, especially at night.
  • Secure carpet and/or throw rugs to the floor or remove them.
  • Install handles near the toilet and bathtub.
  • If stairways are unavoidable, install railings on both sides of stairway.

Balance-Building Exercises

But modifying the home environment alone may not reduce fall risk. After checking with your doctor, you may want to try some of these exercises at home—or find out about community exercise programs—that may help you build strength and improve balance. These exercises were adapted from The National Institute on Aging’s online Exercise Book.

  1. Calf Exercise
    1. Stand with a table or chair in front of you and hold onto it for support.
    2. Start with your feet flat on ground, shoulder-width apart.
    3. Slowly stand on your tiptoes. You may have to start with 15 to 30 seconds and work to 1 full minute.
    4. Slowly return to normal standing position. Rest.
    5. Do two sets (8 to 15 repetitions each) for each leg.
  2. Shin Exercise
    1. Lean your back against a wall, placing your feet about 6 to 8 inches away from the wall.
    2. With your heels firmly set, lift the toes of both feet off the ground as high as possible. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds
    3. Do two sets (8 to 15 repetitions each).
  3. Knee Bending Exercise
    1. Stand with a table or chair in front of you and hold onto it for support.
    2. Start with your feet flat on ground, shoulder-width apart.
    3. Slowly bend one leg at the knee, raising foot up behind you to form 90° angle at the knee. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds and increase to 1 minute. This exercise may cause cramping of the hamstring muscles at first.
    4. Slowly return to normal standing position. Rest.
    5. Do two sets (8 to 15 repetitions each) for each leg.
  4. Knee Raising Exercise
    1. Stand with a table or chair in front of you and hold onto it for support.
    2. Start with your feet flat on ground, shoulder-width apart.
    3. Slowly bend one leg 90° at the knee, raising knee in front of you toward chest (to form a 90° angle at hip and knee joints). Do not bend at waist. Hold 15 to 30 seconds.
    4. Slowly lower leg down. Rest.
    5. Repeat with other leg
    6. Do two sets (8 to 15 repetitions each) for each leg.
  5. Straight Leg Lift Exercise
    1. Stand with a table or chair in front of you (about 12 inches away) and hold onto it for support, with feet shoulder-width apart.
    2. Bend forward at the hips at about a 45° angle.
    3. Slowly lift one leg straight back (without bending your knee or pointing your toes). Also keep your back straight and your waist bent at 45° angle.
    4. Hold for 1 to 5 seconds and then slowly lower leg. Pause.
    5. Repeat with other leg.
    6. Continue alternating legs until you have done 8 to 15 repetitions with each leg.
    7. Rest. Do a second set of 8 to 15 repetitions with each leg, alternating legs.
  6. Side Leg Raise Exercise
    1. Stand with a table or chair in front of you and hold onto it for support.
    2. Slowly lift one leg out to side until foot is about 6 to 12 inches off the ground. Keep your back and both legs straight and keep your toes pointed forward. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds.
    3. Slowly lower leg back to normal standing position. Pause.
    4. Repeat with other leg.
    5. Alternate legs until you have done 8 to 15 repetitions for each leg. Rest.
    6. Do another set of 8 to 15 repetitions for each leg, alternating legs.

Increasing the Challenge

As your balance improves, you may want to increase the difficulty of these exercises by making the following modifications:

  • Hold onto the table or chair with one hand instead of two.
  • Progress to holding the table or chair with one fingertip.
  • Then use no hands.

Other Exercises to Build Balance

  • Take daily walks. Be sure to wear comfortable, non-slip shoes that fit you well.
  • If you can, take extra trips up and down the stairs, holding on to the railings for safety. This will help strengthen hips and thighs.
  • If you are unable to handle stairs well, try repeatedly getting up from a sitting position in a chair. This also strengthens hips and thighs. Grip the arms of the chair if needed. Or, do not use your hands for a more difficult work out. Soft, low chairs are harder to get out of.