Balance is important throughout our lives, but we take it for granted when we’re young. You may be noticing that your mobility isn’t what it once was, and that’s okay; Every twenty-something body becomes a thirty-something body, then a forty-something body — you get the idea.
Still, maintaining and improving balance is key to living a healthy, active life as you age. To assess your balancing skills, there’s a simple balance test you can try.
Michael Julom, certified personal trainer and founder of ThisIsWhyImFit.com, created the test as a means of assessing and strengthening his client’s abilities. “It’s especially important for women to work on their balance beginning in middle age,” he tells First. “Loss of balance and resulting falls can be catastrophic. Women suffer from osteoporosis in greater numbers than men, and mortality increases as a result of hip fracture — which are common from falls. Training balance before it becomes an issue makes sense.”
Note: This is not an official balance test like the Berg Balance Scale or the Tinetti Gait and Balance Assessment Tool. Physicians use these assessments to test a patient’s balance in a medical setting.
How To Perform the Balance Test
Julom’s balance test is a stance progression. “Stance progression starts easy and gets harder as you progress it,” he says. Here’s how to do it:
- Stand near a fixed object, like a countertop, tall table, or bar bolted to a wall.
- Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Move feet close together.
- Raise both arms to sides.
- Raise both arms overhead.
- Keep one arm overhead and lower the other.
- Repeat the steps above with eyes closed. Keep the fixed object within reach in the event of loss of balance.
If you can repeat these steps with your eyes closed, try the following three variations. They sound easy at first, but can be difficult in practice because your eyes should still be closed.
- Level 2: staggered stance. Place one foot slightly in front of the other.
- Level 3: tandem stance. Place one foot directly in front of the other. (The heel of one foot should touch the toes of the other.)
- Level 4: single leg stance. Stand on one foot, with the other foot hovering just above the floor (in case you need to touch your toe to the ground to regain your balance).
If you completed all four levels with ease, you’re a pro. If you had difficulty at levels one, two, or three, it’s a cue to work on your balance. Fortunately, Julom developed three simple exercises you can practice to improve your balance test results.
Exercise 1: Bird-Dog Pose
“We typically associate the birddog with core stability, but it can also be used for balance work,” says Julom. He notes that there are two ways to complete this move — for balance or for core. If you are working your core, don’t raise your arms as high during the movement. For balance, raise your arms and legs above parallel to create an extra challenge. Here’s how to do it:
- Start on the floor, with your hands and knees in a tabletop position. (A mat makes this more comfortable.) Make sure your arms and knees are at 90 degree angles.
- At the same time, raise your right arm and left leg. Hold this position for as long as possible — five seconds is a good place to start. Repeat on the other side (raise your left arm and right leg).
- Repeat the full movement series (one side, then the other side) five times. Do three sets (15 repetitions of the full movement series total).
Exercise 2: Stork Pose
The stork pose looks a bit like level four of the balance test, and that’s by design. It’s an intermediary move that helps you work up to level four. What makes it easier than the actual level four test? This exercise is performed with eyes open, and the non-balancing foot rests on the calf. Here’s how to do it:
- Start with your feet together. Make sure a stable surface is within arms reach.
- Slowly raise one foot by sliding it up the front of the opposite leg, so that the heel is just below the knee.
- Hold that pose for as long as possible — 30 seconds is plenty.
- If stable and not wobbly, gradually raise both arms to the side.
- If completely stable, slowly lower one arm to the side (either one), then the other. Repeat the full movement series on the other foot.
Exercise 3: Balance On an Unstable Surface
If you feel comfortable completing level four of the balance test, it’s time to move on to something more challenging.
“For this exercise, you’ll need a thick foam pad or a Bosu Ball and a stable object to grab if needed,” says Julom. “This is a further progression of the [balance test] above, but because it requires a piece of gym equipment, we’ve separated it.” Bosu balls are squishy, half-circle gym balls. They can be expensive, so you might have better luck finding an inexpensive foam pad. (Otherwise, try folding a thick towel into a square, then placing it on the floor for this exercise.) Here’s how to do it:
- If using a Bosu, position it flat side down, ball side up. Do not turn it upside down with ball side down.
- Position your pad, towel, or ball near a stable surface (countertop, table, etc.).
- Stand with both feet on the ball or pad. Establish your balance while touching the nearby stable surface.
- Gently let go of the surface. Stay in that position until you are completely stable.
- Raise one hand about one inch in front of your face and focus on one finger. Maintain stability.
- Extend your hand to arms’ length in front of you. Maintain balance.
- Slowly drop your arms arms back down to your sides, and slowly raise one foot. Keep the toe of the raised foot near the ball or pad in case you need to re-establish balance.
- Stand in that one-leg position for as long as possible. Aim for 30 seconds.
So, how often should you practice these exercises? Julom recommends doing the balance test and the bird dog daily. You can also practice the stork pose daily, as long as: “you don’t have an underlying balance disorder, and you are not in a period of recovery after surgery or injury.” Julom adds, “It’s a pretty challenging maneuver, and we advise doing it under a physical therapist or healthcare professional’s supervision. But again, it’s conditional. Let good sense prevail.”
As for the unstable surface exercise, aim to do it once or twice a week. “It requires more stabilization from the skeletal muscle system, and those will need to fully recover,” he says.
One final note: If you’ve recently suffered a fall or had a surgery, you will need to talk to your doctor, physical therapist, or trainer before trying these exercises. “Any woman whose balance is already compromised, or suspect (such as post hip replacement surgery) should perform these exercises under supervision,” advises Julom.
How far did you get on the balance test? Let us know in the comments below.