Why Balance Training Matters, and How to Get Started

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You don’t have to be a gymnast or a yogi to benefit from regular balance training. In fact, balance is considered one of the six skill-related components of fitness that everyone can benefit from. The truth is, if you suck at balance, you’re going to have a hard time walking in a straight line, picking up items you drop on the floor, or catching your equilibrium when someone bumps into you. And if you can’t do these three things well, you’re kinda setting yourself up for a less-than-stellar lifestyle as you age.

Balance training can prevent falls.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014, Americans experienced 29 million falls that caused 7 million injuries to the tune of an estimated $31 billion. Of course, not every fall can be prevented; sometimes shit happens. But the reality is, if you’re not taking care of your balance or prioritizing neuromuscular training, you could end up as one of those nasty statistics.

“As you age, your muscle mass decreases, which could lead to joint instability and limited range of motion,” says Eric Feigl, a personal trainer and the host of the Fitness Candor podcast. Combined, these two factors contribute to a steady increase in the risk of falls, but it’s not like you have to just roll over and accept your fate. According to a 2015 review and meta-analysis published in the journal Sports Medicine, regular balance training sessions are an effective way of improving proactive, reactive, and dynamic/static balance states, essentially reducing the risk of falling, and thereby reducing the risk of fall-related injuries.

Balance training can improve athletic performance.

If the metaphorical stick of suffering a fall isn’t enough to motivate you to start balance training, here’s your metaphorical carrot: Balance training could make you a better athlete. A separate, 2011 review study published in Sports Medicine found that recreational athletes who had high levels of balance ability enjoyed markers of improved performance compared to their less-balance-proficient peers.

And it wasn’t just in the obvious sports like gymnastics and soccer, where balance skills led to greater athleticism. Rather, balance ability was found to significantly correlate with rifle shooting accuracy, archery shooting accuracy, ice hockey maximum skating speed, and simulated luge start speed. It was also linked with improvements in vertical jump, shuttle run speed, and overall agility. So if you fancy yourself a weekend warrior, a little bit of balance training could make you that much better.

Start by Adding Balance Training to Your Current Routine.

You don’t have to run out and buy any fancy training equipment to get started. Feigl says your first, best line of defense is a solid strength training program that incorporates full range of motion exercises to improve joint mobility. If you’re able to knock out a couple sets of full ROM squats and push-ups, single-leg balance exercises are your step toward killer balance. “Something as simple as standing on one leg with a bent knee and your eyes closed,” Feigl says. He also points to other unilateral exercises, such as walking lunges, farmers walks, high step-ups while holding a weight in the opposite hand, and lateral jumps where you jump side to side, landing on one leg at a time, as good options for enhancing balance and motor control.

The trick, of course, is consistency. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests all healthy adults incorporate 20 to 30 minutes of neuromotor exercise into their routines two to three days a week. This sounds like a lot, especially if you think you have to add it on top of your current workout schedule, but luckily, exercise accumulates concurrently, not consecutively.

In other words, those farmers walks and high step-ups can be incorporated into your regular strength routine. And the next time you do HIIT work, use lateral jumps or single-leg burpees as a way to make your heart rate soar. And of course, almost any exercise that incorporates a TRX or BOSU ball qualifies as balance training, so if you have access to the equipment, warm up with squats on a BOSU and planks using a TRX. Finally, wrap up your regular routine with a 10-minute yoga series — you may be surprised how hard it is to maintain your balance during revolved side angle pose