Five simple exercises to help older people improve their balance

Reviewed by Deniece Themistocli

Have you noticed your parent or elder relative becoming a bit more wobbly on their feet? Getting our ageing parents and elder relatives to do specific balance exercises is one of the most effective and straightforward ways to help prevent falls and enhance their overall well-being. In fact, it might even extend their life – a recent study found that older adults who cannot balance on one foot for ten seconds have an 84% higher risk of death than those who can.

As people grow older, they tend to become more unsteady on their feet. This is often down to a combination of issues, including muscle weakening and joint stiffness.

Reduced balance makes older people more prone to falls, which, in turn, can result in injuries and a loss of independence. It can also affect their confidence, causing them to avoid certain activities and shuffle their feet as they walk, further increasing their risk of falling and reducing their quality of life.

Note: If your parent is frequently falling, stumbling or losing their balance, it’s important that you or they inform their GP (even if they haven’t been injured) so they can investigate what is causing the falls and potentially refer them to a specialist falls clinic for an assessment.

Can you improve balance in old age?

Fortunately, there are some simple daily exercises that can significantly improve balance and stability in older people, allowing them to stay active and confident in their daily lives. These exercises are easy to follow, take no more than 5 minutes a day, require no special clothing or equipment and can be done in the living room at home.

What if they lack the confidence or motivation to start?

If that’s the case, encourage them by doing the exercises together at first, or over a video call if you’re not nearby.

Creating a visual aid by sketching out the exercises using stick figures and placing it on a wall or noticeboard where they’ll see it daily can also help. As can setting a daily reminder to do the exercises on their phone.

Even if they can only manage doing the “one leg stand” each day, this is still better than nothing and can make a significant difference if done consistently over time.

5 simple exercises to improve balance for older people

NOTE: Make sure you consult with a healthcare professional before your parent begins any new exercise programme, especially if they have existing medical conditions or concerns about their physical capabilities.

With all these exercises, it’s important to breathe steadily and keep the stomach pulled in to engage the core muscles for stability.

1. One leg stand

  • Stand next to the back of a sturdy chair or a countertop that you can lightly rest your hand on or grab onto if needed for support. If using a chair, it’s important that the chair cannot move, so have the chair against a wall if needed.
  • With your hand hovering above the back of the chair or countertop, begin by shifting your weight onto one leg while raising your heel on the other foot, toes lightly touching the ground for balance.
  • Try to hold this position for 5-10 seconds.
  • Switch to the other leg and do the same.
  • Repeat 10 times.

2. Chair squats

  • Stand in front of a sturdy chair with your back to the chair and your feet hip-width apart. Ensure the back of the chair is against a wall so it can’t move.
  • Raise your arms 90 degrees straight in front of you, so your arms are horizontal to the floor and fingers are pointing forward
  • Keeping your arms lifted, slowly lean slightly forward and bend your knees to lower yourself down to the chair and sit down.
  • Wait a second, then bend your torso forward, with arms still facing forward
  • Push down into your heels and stand back up slowly, lowering your arms by your side and pushing your shoulders back.
  • Aim for 10-15 repetitions.
  • Use the chair for support and take rests as needed.

3. Tandem balance

  • Stand next to or between two walls (in a narrow hallway for example)
  • Place one foot in front of the other, with the heel of the front foot against the toe of the other.
  • Hold your arms out to the sides to help with balance – so your hands are within reach of but not touching the wall.
  • Try to maintain this position for 5-10 seconds.
  • Switch the position of your feet and repeat.
  • You can gradually increase the time you hold the position as you become more stable.

4. Knee lifts

  • Stand straight, feet hip-width apart, with a supportive surface on your left that you can grab or lean on if needed (the back of a sturdy chair or wall)
  • Lift your right knee up in front of you as high as you can go.
  • Lower it back down.
  • Repeat 10-15 times.
  • Position yourself so that the supportive surface is now on your right.
  • Repeat the same exercise 10-15 times with your left knee.

5. Heel lifts

  • Stand behind a sturdy chair or in front of a countertop with your hands resting lightly on the back on the chair or on the countertop.
  • Place your feet hip distance apart with toes pointing forward.
  • Lift up your heels and rise up to stand on your tip toes.
  • Lift your hands up slightly and hold this position for a few seconds.
  • Place your hands back on the chair or countertop and slowly lower your heels down.
  • Repeat 10 times.

In summary

Around 1 in 3 adults over 65 and half of people over 80 will have at least one fall a year. These exercises, when performed regularly, can significantly enhance an older person’s balance and stability, reducing the risk of falls and improving their confidence in daily activities.

Remember to start slowly, and consult with a healthcare professional before beginning any exercise programme, especially if your parent has existing medical conditions or concerns about their physical capabilities.

Common questions

  • How often should older people do these balance exercises?

Ideally daily, but even just a few times a week will make a difference over time.  It really depends on your parent’s health, mobility and fitness levels. Before starting, consult with a healthcare professional for personalised guidance on the frequency that suits your parent’s ability and needs.

  • Are there any age limits for these balance exercises?

These exercises are generally safe for older adults, but it’s essential to consider your parent’s individual physical condition and any existing health issues. Consult their healthcare provider to ensure these exercises are appropriate and safe for them.

  • Can these exercises be adapted for seniors with limited mobility or joint problems?

Yes, these exercises can often be adapted to accommodate limited mobility or joint stiffness. Encourage your parents to work within their comfort zone and modify the exercises as needed. If they have specific mobility concerns, consult with a physical therapist or healthcare professional for tailored modifications.

  • How long does it take to see improvements in balance and stability?

The timeline for improvement varies from person to person, but consistency is key. Some people may experience noticeable improvements in a few weeks, while others may take longer. Encourage your parent or elder relative to stay patient and persistent, and they should see positive changes in their balance and stability and start to feel more confident over time.

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