You might not think about balance as a key part of your fitness, but it’s right up there with flexibility, strength and stamina. Many people associate poor balance with older adults, but the truth is, it’s important to work on it no matter your life stage. Better balance not only helps prevent injury, but it can also help you take on more challenging exercises to get fitter. What’s more, walking is one of the best types of exercise to practice balance skills. Here’s how to give it a try on your next walk:
One of the simplest ways to get started is to work with your surroundings. “If one is available, use the curb as a balance beam,” recommends Becky Behling, a certified personal trainer. It might sound easy, but you’d be surprised how difficult it can be to walk on a curb, one foot in front of the other, for at least 20 steps.
Instead of just walking as you normally would, try different types of steps and switching up your direction. “While walking on a safe and obstruction-free sidewalk or path, practice walking sideways, backwards and grapevine style,” recommends Jim Palmer, a physical therapist. “This will challenge your brain’s vestibular, balance and coordination systems.” For safety, “move slowly in each direction for 20 steps while maintaining your balance. Change directions and repeat.”
To step things up a notch, you can also include basic locomotor skills, like galloping, skipping and hop jumping. “These all involve propulsion, which is more fatiguing and demands finer balance skills,” explains Behling. As you get better, you can increase other variables like speed, distance and time to make your drills more difficult.
This is also known as tandem gait, and it recruits your proprioceptive system, or your ability to understand where your body is in space, which helps with balance. “While doing this you want to keep your head up,” says Alex Tauberg, a chiropractor and certified strength and conditioning specialist. “Start out just walking a short distance, and then increase as you go.”
This exercise challenges your vestibular system, also known as your inner ear. “It’s responsible for determining your body’s orientation: up, down, left or right,” notes Sara Mikulsky, a physical therapist and certified trainer. “It is largely controlled by the semicircular canals in the ear that house hair-like follicles and crystals. These crystals move around and push the follicles to let your brain know which direction you are headed in. To stimulate them, we make quick head turns up and down.”
Practice walking straight while turning your head left and right 10 times each, suggests Palmer. “Continue walking, then look up and down 10 times each. You may feel some dizziness or inability to walk in a straight line. That’s okay, but means you need some work.” As this drill becomes easier, challenge yourself by adding repetitions: repeating 20 times, then 30 times and so on.
This drill is especially important to do in a safe, obstruction-free area. “Many times, when there is a problem in one of the other balance systems, people rely heavily on their visual system to maintain their balance,” says Milusky. Closing your eyes is a good way to check if that might be the case for you.
Start small with 20 steps keeping your eyes closed, recommends Palmer. You can hold onto another person’s hand or other support if needed. “If this is too easy, walk further with your eyes closed,” he says. “If that’s still too easy, up the challenge by walking backwards, sideways and grapevine-style.”