Updated: Jan 11
Instability is NOT a natural part of aging. It may be the result of inactivity, neurological decline, inner ear conditions, or a host of other sources. If you have been experiencing a decline in your balance and stability, read on to see what I consider the 5 best balance exercises for seniors to do at home.
Why These 5 Exercises?
I have taught senior fitness classes for the past decade. In that time, I have seen people who are exceptionally fit, and I have seen those who are extremely frail. What I have noticed is that age is not the determining factor in balance. Some folks are incredibly stable into their 90s. Others require assistance in their 50s.
I also noted the connection between activity and balance – people who are more active tend to have better balance. Now, you could argue that those people may be more active because they have better balance. Either way, though, there is a direct connection between activity levels and improved balance.
The five best balance exercises for seniors share several features. They:
Are easy and safe to perform
Require no equipment (other than something to hold on to)
Can be adapted for those who are very unstable
Work on more than one area of balance
#1. Heel to Toe Walk
This is a basic exercise that helps increase your coordination. It also targets the muscles and connective tissue in your hips, increasing strength throughout that area to increase stamina and stability. If you experience weakness or pain in your hips, you might want to check out this article to read about exercises that target your hips. Just remember to consult your doctor before starting any new exercise program.
Stand along a wall (like in a hallway) or length of counter for this exercise. This gives you something to hold on to in case you start to feel wobbly. And don’t worry if that happens; it is completely natural!
Place one foot directly in front of the other, with your heel “bumping” the toe of the stationary foot. Continue walking that way for as many steps as you have support for. Aim for at least 10 steps forward.
As I mentioned, it is completely natural to feel unstable doing this exercise. Hold on to your support object as needed. You may find it helpful to hold your arms outstretched to the sides and/or to fix your gaze at a place on the floor about 6 feet in front of where you stand.
Do not look down. This changes the alignment of your body and actually throws your balance off more. I promise, if your feet get up and leave the room you will know about it. Just trust yourself and take it easy – slow and steady is the name of the game in balance exercises.
#2. Now Walk Backwards!
Say what?! Once you get to the end of taking those 10 or so steps forward, see if you can walk backward on the same path. You have your support to hold on to, so don’t panic.
This works coordination and can increase leg strength. It is also a confidence booster for many people -at least, it is once they realize they can do it. Being afraid of falling directly increases your risk of actually falling, so confidence is your friend.
It may feel better if you stagger your feet a little during this. Don’t worry about lining them up directly one in front of (or behind) the other. Just work on going backward in a straight line.
Make sure there are no objects on the floor BEFORE you start these exercises. This is not when you want to find out that your granddaughter left a block in the hallway. If you have pets, make sure they have not joined in to see what you are doing. Not many balance exercises are going to keep you upright if your cat zips under your feet during these!
#3. Side Leg raises
This is a great all-around exercise, and it is especially helpful for balance and hip pain. Stand next to something sold (a wall, counter, chair, table, etc.) and check your alignment. Your hips and shoulders should be in a line, with your head looking straight forward. Gently and slowly raise your leg to the side, then lower it down.
Watch your alignment. Stay tall throughout the whole exercise. Leaning your body can actually cause you to LOSE your balance.
Use slow, steady, and controlled movements. Don’t swing your leg back and forth. Adding a slight pause at the top of your lift will help with this.
Speaking of the top of your leg raise… this is not a high kick, and none of us are auditioning for the Rockettes. Raise your leg as far to the side as you comfortably can while maintaining proper alignment. This will likely be no more than 12” – 18” of the ground. It may be less, depending on your flexibility. Listen to your body and what is comfortable.
#4. Heel Raises
I love heel raises. I think they are a great exercise that works your calves, ankles, and knees. I may be alone in my adoration. Give them a fair chance, though, and make sure to stretch your calves afterward, so you don’t get sore!
How to Do a Heel Raise
Stand behind a chair or face a counter. Gently raise your heels off the floor (see where the name comes from?) with your weight shifting to the balls of your feet. Hold this position for 1-5 seconds, then lower back down. Now repeat it 8-12 times.
Why are heel raises one of the best balance exercises for seniors? Well, they strengthen the muscles of your lower legs, ankles, and knees. All of those play a role in your balance and stability. Done correctly, they also simulate a slightly unstable surface, which can help with how you react to them in real-life situations.
An unstable surface is used in many exercises which improve proprioception, which deals with how we perceive the world around us. This contributes to balance and stability and can play an important role if you want to take a holistic approach to improving your balance.
I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but you should watch your alignment here and make sure you are not leaning toward your support. That can strain your ankles, potentially causing tissue damage.
Don’t bounce. At least not yet. You may work up to a pulsing motion, where the heels do not quite touch the ground for the entire set. However, for the sake of those just starting out, take it slow. Your calves are probably going to feel this exercise for a day or so afterward, so keep it simple and work toward more advanced exercises.
#5. Rock the Boat
This may not seem like an actual exercise, but it is one of the best balance exercises for seniors that I have come across. Actually, it’s good for anyone! It helps make you aware of your weight transfer and when that takes place during movements. That is one of the underlying principles of Tai Chi and what makes it such a great exercise for balance.
Read more about Tai Chi and how it can improve your balance in these great articles: on the Tai Chi for Health website.
Stand with your feet about hip-width apart, maybe slightly wider. You want to be able to press your feet firmly into the floor without them rolling in.
Now, firmly press your right foot into the floor and shift your weight to the right. There should be no weight on your left foot. If you feel comfortable, you can lift the left foot off the floor slightly. Hold this position for up to 30 seconds, then put your left down (if it was raised). Press that foot down and shift your weight to the left, raising the right foot if you are comfortable. Repeat these 8-12 times on each side.
Make sure you have something to hold on to while you are doing this exercise. Since you may be standing on one foot, you want to make sure you have a safety net – just in case.
Don’t feel like you have to pick up your unweighted foot or that you have to hold this for the full 30 seconds on each side. Do what works for you.
Why Do Balance Exercises?
Perhaps a better question is, “Why not?”
Balance exercises are safe and have been shown to effectively increase stability and balance (hence the name – balance exercises). I chose these exercises based on feedback from class participants, observations I have made in classes, and a fairly comprehensive understanding of contributing factors for falls.
If you perform these regularly, you may notice your balance is improving. You may not. But you will have been more active, which is linked to better balance and decreased risks of falls. As far as I can see, it’s a win-win.
I hope you have enjoyed this information and my picks for the 5 best balance exercises for seniors. I would love to hear what you think about these exercises or just the site in general. Please share your feedback, comments, and questions in the comments section below.