By Dana Santas, CNN
In the world of physical comedy, being a klutz who trips over their own feet gets lots of laughs. In the real world, the more often you lose your balance, the more likely you are to take a tumble that leads to injury — and that’s no laughing matter.
Falls aren’t just the leading cause of injury in adults age 65 and older but in almost all age groups in the United States. That’s why being classified as a klutz isn’t just a funny moniker; It can be dangerous.
It’s also something you can change by exercising your way to better balance and decreased risk of injury. One of the most important benefits of exercise is making you less susceptible to injury in your daily life. Improving your balance does that by reducing your odds of falling.
Balance-training exercise may not be what you expect. It’s not just about practicing standing on one leg. The best way to enhance balance and prevent falls, particularly as we age, is through a multifaceted approach, research has shown.
A well-rounded exercise program helps you improve body awareness and move better with increased strength, stability and coordination — all of which promote better balance.
Regardless of what style of exercise you perform, the ability to move and balance your body in any activity comes from the connection between your brain, nervous system and muscles. This is your mind-body connection. Mind and body communication is driven specifically by two aspects of your central nervous system: proprioception, also known as kinesthetic sense, and your vestibular system.
Proprioceptors located in your joints and muscles inform your sense of movement, posture and the orientation of your limbs in space. The vestibular system, located in your inner ear, provides a sense of overall balance based on the movement of the head.
There are health issues, like neuropathy (damage to the nervous system), that can hinder balance. If you’re a chronic klutz, it’s important to see your doctor to rule out any medical problems.
Make sure to check with your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.
Read on for ways to leverage multifaceted exercise strategies to improve your balance.
1. Start by testing your balance
One-leg stand test: How long can you stand on one leg without excessive wobbling? To try it, stand on a flat, stable surface — like a hard floor rather than a thick carpet — and lift one foot a few inches off the floor, balancing your weight over your remaining standing leg. Try it on both sides.
Ideally, you should be able to stand on one leg for at least 20 seconds without excessive wobbling. You can regularly practice single-leg standing balance as part of your training. Also use this activity as a gauge for reassessing your balance ability as you consistently work through the exercise strategies below.
2. Enhance body awareness and control
Body-weight exercises: Now, you’re ready to focus on movements that challenge your strength, mobility and balance. Being aware of your body’s position and being able to control your movement is an essential aspect of any type of body-weight exercise, whether you’re doing standard push-ups, squats or yoga postures.
Another important aspect of body awareness is having an understanding of where your weight is centered and being able to shift your center of mass to different areas of your body in various positions to stay balanced. For instance, in a lateral lunge to the right, you need to shift your center of mass into your hip, leg and core on the right. Then when you move into lunging left, you need to transfer your center of mass to the left.
As you work through body-weight exercises in any modality, be it the exercises in the 10-minute body-weight workout or a yoga, Pilates or tai chi session, pay attention to how you shift your weight to establish better balance in each position or movement.
3. Increase stability
Strength training and posture exercises: Having functional strength and postural control are key elements for maintaining balance. Using free weights is a great way to strength train. By adding weight to common movements, like squatting and single-leg hinging, you can work on stabilizing those movements with added strength and control.
Posture is connected to balance because of its impact on your alignment and ability to center your weight. When you have a slumped posture with a forward head position, your center of mass is pulled forward with your head, throwing off your skeletal alignment and balance. Because prolonged sitting and less-than-optimal breathing mechanics both adversely impact posture, it’s important to address both in order to improve your posture. You can accomplish that by incorporating these exercises to break up bouts of sitting throughout your day and practicing these breathing exercises that put your ribcage in an optimal position for better posture.
4. Improve coordination
Walk with intention: We often forget that the simple act of walking takes a great deal of balance and coordination. To be reminded, just watch a child learning to walk. Gait, the movement pattern known as walking, is one of the most fundamental human movements, requiring coordination of alternating and reciprocal movements throughout your upper and lower body. While your right foot steps forward, your left foot stabilizes you, and, at the same time, your left arm swings forward and your right arm swings back. When you take your next step with your left foot, everything alternates.
How functionally we walk influences how well we navigate our lives and, as we observe with children learning to walk, how susceptible we are to falls. Too often, we inadvertently create improper walking patterns that can throw off our balance, so it’s important to walk with intention so you can notice any problems with your walking and correct them before they become habitual.
To learn some of the common walking problems and how to fix them, watch this video.
Try taking at least a 10-minute walk several times per week while paying attention to the balance of weight and movement in your body.
The World Health Organization recommends 150 minutes of exercise per week. By incorporating the strategies above to meet your weekly exercise target, you’ll not only be increasing your fitness level and life span but also improving your balance and reducing your risk of injury from falling.
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Dana Santas, known as the “Mobility Maker,” is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach in professional sports, and is the author of the book “Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief.”