How to Improve Your Balance
Feeling Dizzy? Tips and Tricks To Improve Your Balance and Feel More Stable
By Dr. Chad Walding, DPT
September 2nd, 2019
If you’ve ever experienced dizziness, suddenly lost your balance, or felt nauseated from standing too quickly, you know how disorienting it can be to have balance problems. For some, especially older adults, the fear of falling associated with balance-related disorders can affect the quality of life, making it difficult to bathe, get dressed, or climb stairs.1,2
If you’re an athlete, you’re equally familiar with the importance of maintaining proper balance. Good balance can often be the difference between a correct golf swing, a proper flip in a pool, or dancing gracefully across the stage without missing a beat.
Three main systems contribute to our sense of balance: our inner ear, our vision, and our musculoskeletal system, which contains the muscles that help us stand, walk, sit, or lie down without falling over. For good balance, all three of these systems need to be working properly. In this article, we’ll be focusing on the third stability factor: our muscles.
So is it possible to improve balance? The answer is a resounding YES– but before we look at how we can improve our stability, let’s dive into what causes balance and stability issues in the first place.
What Causes Balance Issues?
As we’ve discussed, problems of the inner ear, eye issues, or inflexible or weak balance muscles can cause issues with balance. However, there are a few other things that could lead to balance-related problems:4
- Age. As you age, the muscles that help you stand naturally weaken. Additionally, age increases your likelihood of suffering from conditions like the ones below, putting you at a higher risk of falling.
- Side effects of medication. If you’ve recently started taking a new medication and have felt dizzy or lightheaded as a result, talk to your doctor about changing your prescription.
- Low blood pressure. Dizziness is a common symptom of hypotension (low blood pressure).
- Eye issues, especially eye muscle imbalances, can lead to balance problems. If your eye is struggling to correctly understand space, your brain might struggle with spatial disorientation. This disorientation can cause it to misunderstand the cues your eye is sending it, causing stability problems.
- Parkinson’s Disease. Those with Parkinson’s Disease are at a higher risk of falling due to the medication as well as the disease making them more likely to have a sudden drop in blood pressure, which leads to dizziness.
- Arthritis. Those diagnosed with arthritis often struggle with balance because of the decreased function and muscle weakness that often accompanies arthritis. Balance issues can also be a sign of nerve damage, another side effect of arthritis.
- Stroke. Strokes can happen in different parts of the brain, but if they happen in the cerebellum or brainstem, which control balance, they can affect your balance.
The best way to decrease your likelihood of developing these conditions or losing your balance as you age is to maintain a healthy, balanced diet, supplement wisely, and maintain an active lifestyle. You can also improve your balance by exercising and stretching the muscles used to maintain balance.
Top 4 Exercises to Improve Balance
One of the best ways you can prevent balance issues (or improve on the balance you already have) is to exercise the muscles that contribute to proper balance. Here are four exercises to strengthen the key balance-related muscles in your system:
- Flamingo stand. This exercise works to improve your core, where some of the key muscles for balance are located. Make sure to remove your socks before trying this exercise so you don’t slip. It might be useful to start near a wall until you get the hang of this exercise.
Stand on one foot, with your hands outstretched to your sides. Hold the position for 15-20 seconds before lowering your arms and bringing your leg to the floor. Repeat on the other leg. Practice this exercise (alternating legs) for 10 minutes a day. To make it more challenging, try closing your eyes as you balance on one leg.
If standing on one leg sounds intimidating or makes you feel dizzy right now, that’s ok. Instead, try this 3-minute core workout video I created to improve core muscles using only a yoga mat.
- Back leg raises. Stand with one hand on a chair for balance, and with your feet firmly planted on the ground about a hips’ width apart. Slowly raise one of your legs backward without bending your knee, then hold that position for a few seconds. Slowly lower that leg to the ground, and repeat 10-12 more times before switching to the other leg.
- Side leg raises. This is similar to the back leg raises exercise, except that you will raise your leg to the side instead of behind you. Hold for 10-15 seconds, then release and lower your leg. Repeat 10-12 more times before switching to the opposite leg.
- One-legged squat. Stand on your left leg and lift your right leg in front of you. Try to keep your right toes pointed up while you slowly bend your left knee, squatting down. Your right leg should stay straight in front of you. It might help to spread your arms out in front of you for balance. Slowly straighten your left leg. Do this 5-10 times before switching to your other leg.
- Bonus: Yoga. Try adding a weekly yoga practice to your routine. Yoga has been shown to help improve balance and flexibility, and it’s also a great all-body workout that isn’t too strenuous on your joints or muscles.5
Flexibility and Stretching for Balance
At first glance, it may seem that balance and flexibility are unrelated. However, balance and flexibility go hand in hand and are essential elements of your whole-body health. In fact, improving flexibility and strength has been shown to prevent falls in older adults.3 Unfortunately, most people (including athletes and trainers) don’t always emphasize the importance of flexibility into their workout routines, and instead, focus on weight-lifting or intense cardio activities.
So how does flexibility improve balance? Well, the key to improving balance is to strengthen the muscles that help you balance. For example, even if you’re standing still, there are a lot of muscles at work. For those muscles to be functioning at their best (and thereby keeping you in balance), it’s important to keep them strong and limber.
You can’t focus on one and ignore the other, though: both strength and flexibility are equally important. Flexibility keeps the balance muscles at their best by increasing blood flow to those muscles, improving their range of motion, and reduce the risk of injury.
Similarly, it’s important to strengthen the muscles, not just increase their flexibility, to improve overall balance. You don't want to have strength without flexibility, and vice versa.
Top 4 Stretches for Improving Flexibility and Balance
The best way to improve flexibility is to stretch your muscles both before, during, and after workouts. Here are some exercises you can do to help increase flexibility:
- Calf stretch. Stand and place your hands on a wall in front of you, with both feet about 12 inches from the wall and about hip-distance apart. Move your right foot back 12 inches, and keep your left foot in place. Slowly lean your upper body towards the wall. You should feel a slight stretch in the right calf. Hold for 15-30 seconds, then release and repeat with the left leg.
- Hip stretch. There are lots of great hip stretches you can try, but here’s one of our favorites for stretching the hip flexors, the muscles that help you bend at the hip or bring your knee up. Lay flat on the ground, with both legs outstretched. Slowly bring your right knee up, and use your arms to hug it to your torso while leaving the left leg flat on the ground. Make sure your back is pushed into the floor, and hold the stretch for 15-30 seconds. Release, then repeat with the left leg.
- Standing hamstring stretch. Begin in a standing position, then cross your right leg over your left leg, placing your right foot on the ground. Slowly bend at the waist, lowering yourself over your crossed legs until you feel a good stretch in your left hamstring. Hold for 15-30 seconds, then release and repeat with the left leg.
- Butterfly stretch. This stretch loosens your inner thighs and hips. Begin in a seated position, with the soles of your feet touching and your knees open. Grab your feet with both hands, slowly leaning forward over your feet. Hold this stretch for 15-30 seconds, keeping your back straight.
Repeat each stretch two to three times and make sure to never over-stretch your muscles or hold a painful stretch. Take deep breaths while you’re stretching, and never bounce as this can lead to small tears in the muscle. As you continue to practice these stretches, the flexibility will come – you don’t want to force it.
Cautions When Exercising for Balance
While doing these exercises and stretches, don’t over-exert or over-stretch your muscles. Take slow, deep breaths as you work through the exercises and take a break if you feel dizzy, lightheaded, or nauseated. Remember, any of these exercises and stretches are working to strengthen and condition your muscles in your legs, back, and core, and it’s important to go at your body’s own pace. It’s never a good idea to force or rush yourself.
Want Faster Results?
If you’re still concerned about balance or would like to kick it up a notch, I encourage you to try out the NativeBody Reset program I designed. This program walks you through daily movement routines to improve pain, build core strength, and increase flexibility – all of which are essential to improving balance and stability. Best of all, it doesn’t require any equipment and can be done from your home.
Improving balance is just one of the many benefits you’ll notice from this kind of total-life makeover. If you’re ready to reset your life, get your diet and exercise plans back on track, and experience the best body and health you’ve had yet, give it a try today!