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If my stint on the beam in childhood gymnastics class taught me anything, it’s that balance is no small feat. While strength and flexibility get a lot of accolades in the fitness world, your relationship with gravity is just as important. That’s why I tapped yoga teacher-slash-physical therapist Lara Heimann, PT, for balance exercises that you should make a point of incorporating into your fitness routine.
“Balance is a host of different variables that are all orchestrated in the brain,” says Heimann. Your vision, mobility, proprioception (your “sixth sense” that tells you where your body is in space), and the vestibular system (a network of organs in the inner ear) all play a role in keeping you upright. It’s an intricate system that works together in complex and fascinating ways, and Heimann breaks it down as follows.
“There are receptors lining your joints, in your ligaments, and in your tendons that are telling you where you are in space. They’re constantly communicating with the brain,” says Heimann. “If you’re walking over pavement and then suddenly the terrain switches to gravel, it’s not like you have to look down and adjust. Your body makes a really quick response, and that’s a part of balance.” All of this is encompassed by the term proprioception. Meanwhile, the vestibular system acts like a leveler in your body, keeping you from leaning too far one way or the other. Vision and mobility are a little more straightforward; you need both for balance because you need to see what’s around you and move with ease to take the path of least resistance.
“The thing about balance is that we are constantly making it better or making it worse.” —Lara Heimann, PT
Working on your balance is a lifelong commitment and one that’s well worth your time, says Heimann. “The thing about balance is that we are constantly making it better or making it worse. It doesn’t tend to stay static,” she says. When we habitually do less large movement patterns (as sometimes happens as we get older), our body develops a fear around them and they get harder to do. That’s why physical therapists often use the sitting-rising test (which involves sitting down then standing up without using your hands) as a marker of longevity.
Before you dive into workouts that will better your balance better, Heimann says she likes to recommend a little test that you can use a diagnostic that will lay bare exactly how your body’s feeling about gravity these days. (Hint: It involves standing on one leg—so get excited.)
The single-leg exercise for testing your balance
Remember your schoolyard days when you would try to hopscotch with just one leg once you’d mastered the move with two? Well, Heimann wants you to channel your younger, carefree self to see how your bod really feels about balance. “Stand on one leg. Stand on your left leg and bring your right knee up to about hip height,” instructs Heimann. From there, Heimann wants you to just observe how you feel.
It’s not about doing whatever it takes to balance on one leg; it’s about noticing what your body does to help you do that. Is your knee locking out to help you stay up? Is your ankle wobbling? Do you feel like your lower back is suffering because you’re not engaging your core? From there, try moving the leg that’s not on the ground back or forward. What does that do to your balance? What muscles have to engage? Take notes, then move onto the other leg (which will, very likely, feel different).
“You can see how long are you holding it, but also think about the quality,” says Heimann. “What are you feeling? What are you experiencing? All of [those observations] are like food for your brain. You are training your brain by paying attention to all the sensations that are happening.”
This isn’t about being judgemental about what your body can or can’t do. It’s about getting to know yourself well enough that, when you start doing balancing exercises, you actually notice and celebrate your accomplishments. Standing on one leg will feel different in a week, a month, and a year. (Childhood hopscotch definitely taught you that.)
4 balancing exercises to add to your workouts schedule, ASAP
Here’s the good news about balancing exercises: You don’t need to do them at the gym. Instead, Heimann says you can work on them in any spare moment. Here’s how.
1. Stand on one leg while you brush your teeth
My twice-daily oral hygiene routine is one of the least scintillating parts of my life, but Heimann says you can totally gamify your time in front of the mirror with a little balance work. If you’re looking for some extra credit, you can also incorporate some one-legged work into your Zoom meetings or phone catch-ups with the fam. Again, you’re teaching your brain that you can multitask while balancing—and that’s a BFD, everyone.
2. Walk barefoot
“Walk barefoot as much as you can. Walk outside, walk on different surfaces,” says Heimann. “This will give a lot of feedback to all the different structures in your feet that have receptors.” And thus, you are training your proprioception while walking across the room to fill up your glass of water or striding across your bathroom’s tile to touch up your makeup before your next video call.
3. Heel lifts
Here’s a fun one: Just stand up and practice lifting onto the balls of your feet so that your heels hover right off the ground. Give me 10 reps to test those proprioceptors. If you feel so inclined, add a beat, and let’s make this a ballet lesson.
4. Yoga, specifically warrior III, half-moon pose, and other one-legged asanas
Yoga’s four key components are strength, flexibility, mobility, and (you guessed it!) balance. So taking any yoga class—whether it’s 15 minutes or 90—will help your body level up its balancing skills over time. As you move through the practice, notice how many of the movements will emulate that one-legged position that kicked off your balance journey (half-moon pose, warrior III—the list goes on).
Pretty soon, that one-legged tooth-brushing ritual may just take the form of a tree pose.
Test your balance with this shakey yoga class: