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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: July 2023 | Health

Maintaining Your Balance as You Age

Douglas Denton Church


  • Doug Church shares his own struggle with balance and highlights the importance of maintaining good balance for longevity.
  • Try a quick balance test and incorporate daily exercises to enhance stability, reduce the risk of falls, contribute to overall well-being during aging.
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As a two-year old, I contracted polio and spent a few months in an isolation ward at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. Fortunately, over time, the impact of the disease centered only on my right leg which suffered a significant degree of muscular atrophy. As a result, I have had, by and large, no balance when standing on my right leg alone. However, as a result of the compensation required to be ambulatory, I have great balance using my left leg! I can stand for a very long time on my left leg alone without losing my balance.

I have appreciated the value of having good balance because of a partial lack thereof and I have learned to compensate in a variety of ways. When I play golf or tennis, I know where to put my weight, primarily on my left leg, so that I don’t fall down. Running, or what passes for running, was always very dependent on a gait that favored my left leg.

Recently, I have learned from several news stories that balance is a key element in longevity! In fact, a recent study has identified balance as a key indicator of one’s longevity. It makes some kind of sense as you think about it. If you have problems with balance, you will tend not to engage in the kinds of activities that will help maintain good muscular strength as well as the cardio-vascular benefits associated with exercise. The result is predictable. Without exercise, the body starts to fail in a variety of ways. My instinctive attempts to develop a good one-legged balance now proves to be a benefit in understanding the need to keep working at maintaining good balance as one ages. Let’s go deeper into this thought.

First, you need to establish a baseline for yourself. Do the ten second test: find a flat surface and then stand on one leg for 10 seconds with the top of your raised foot on the back of the standing leg’s calf. Give yourself three tries to see if you can remain balanced for the 10 second count. If you can do this test successfully on both legs, you are considered to be in the “good” category.” If not, you have work to do! (But, more on that later!)

According to a study conducted by the World Health Organization, about 680,000 people die in the world each year as a result of a fall. Having good balance reduces your risk and will help prevent the falls and fractures that can leave you bedridden or reliant on a cane or walker.

What to do, what to do? Let’s start with some simple exercises that you can do every day during part of your normal routine. All of these have been recommended by physical therapists who routinely deal with older adults experiencing balance issues:

  1. Simple balance test. Just stand balancing on one leg at a time for 10 seconds. Stand on one leg while you brush your teeth alternating legs every 10 or 15 seconds. Do it barefoot!
  2. While doing routine chores or fixing your morning coffee, stand next to a door jam or other support for safety and then do three reps standing on one leg for 10 seconds and then the other leg for 10 seconds.
  3. A bit more difficult. While holding onto something to help steady yourself, stand on your left leg and place the right ankle over the left thigh into a figure four position. Send the hips down and back, hinging only slightly forward (think: single-leg squat). Drive through the left foot to stand back up. Repeat four to eight times. Then, still standing on the left leg, straighten the right leg out in front, hinging slightly at the hip. Lift and lower the right leg a couple of inches for a pulse, using the core to help lift the leg. Repeat four to eight times. Repeat both moves on the other side.
  4. Standing March. Standing near a sturdy support, begin marching in place slowly for 20-30 seconds. As this becomes easier, you can change up the pace and surface you are marching on—from hardwood to carpet, foam pad, grass, etc.
  5. Standing 3-Way Kicks. Standing on one leg (with a soft, unlocked knee), slowly raise your other leg out in front of you. Keep your extended leg as straight as possible and return it to the center. Then gently lift the same leg out to the side and back down, and then extend your leg behind your body and back down. Perform as many as you can each way. Do this next to a counter or some other solid structure that you can reach if needed to maintain balance.
  6. Sidestepping. Facing a countertop or wall (with your hands on the counter or wall for support as needed), step sideways in one direction with your toes pointed straight ahead until you reach the end of the wall or counter. Then, return in the other direction.
  7. Sit-to-Stand and Stand-to-Sit. Rise out of a chair without using your arms to push up. If this is difficult at first, place a firm pad underneath you on the chair seat to raise you. As you return to a seated position, slowly lower yourself all the way back down and ease into your seat (rather than dropping into the chair). Perform as many times as you are able. This can easily be done while watching TV.
  8. Heel-to-Toe Standing or Walking. Place one foot directly in front of the other, so the heel of the front foot touches the toe of the back foot. Hold this position for as long as you are able, or up to 30 seconds. As this becomes easier, try taking a few steps in this heel-to-toe format, as if you are walking on a tight rope. Remember to have something close by to grab if you lose your balance!

The hoped-for result of these simple exercises is improved balance and, more importantly, a reduction in the fear of falling that may be preventing you from doing the things that will help maintain your good health. It should be obvious that there are many factors in determining how long any of us will live, not just our good or bad balance. However, there have now been sufficient studies done that show with clarity that maintaining good balance will lead to better brain function, good muscle strength, and good blood flow, all of which will tend to lead to a longer life. Just a few minutes of exercise per day can help prevent the catastrophic falls and failing health factors that none of us wants to have to deal with as we age.