Little Things That Make a Big Difference: Balance Exercise

January 13th, 2012

By Cathie Dunal, MD, MPH: One of my patients, a lovely lady of about 60–let’s call her Sandra–had a bad fall a few years ago. It was an icy February, and the sudden collision with a sidewalk took a toll on her back and neck. She went to physical therapy for several months.

This past spring, when Sandra came in for her annual visit, she had a big smile. “I didn’t fall once during the winter,” she beamed, “and I think I know why.” I took the bait: “Why?”

“Because I did the balance exercise you taught me all through the winter. I’m sure that’s why I didn’t fall. I had a few close calls.” She said that she told her friends about the balance training I’d prescribed, and they were doing the exercise too.

Balance exercise? It’s actually incredibly simple to do a tiny bit each day to maintain and improve your balance, and I’d like to share it with you, too:

Stand on one foot. This can be done at any time; I prefer to do it when I’m brushing my teeth–if you brush your teeth for two full minutes, as the dentist recommends, that’s a minute balancing on each foot. Twice a day.  Or while waiting for a pot to boil, a download to finish…during commercials.

It’s that simple. But you probably won’t be able to do it for a full minute at first without practice! And part of the beauty of this simple balance exercise is that it’s practical–it doesn’t add any extra time to your fitness regimen.

(For safety, keep a hand near the countertop so you can grab on and help to stabilize yourself when you lose balance. And of course, don’t try this if you have a balance disorder or a medical condition that impairs your balance–you would need supervision.)

You’ll be surprised to find out how hard it is at first; you might even be putting your foot down every five or ten seconds! But keep at it and you will also be surprised at how quickly you’ll improve. If you want to challenge yourself more–after you can stay balanced on one foot for a full minute–try turning your head to one side, then the other. Surprisingly difficult!

Traditionally, doctors told patients that there are three components to a good exercise program: stretching, strengthening, and cardiovascular. There needs to be a fourth: balance!

PS–This exercise helps with sports performance, too!

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