Balance exercises will put you on a proper footing

Last week I wrote about how important it is to be able to walk with comfort and with confidence. As we move through life from childhood to our senior years, this ability will have a large bearing on how independent we are.

I also outlined some of the things that can have an impact on the ability to walk. Neurological disorders like MS and Parkinson’s syndrome, arthritis, joint injuries and cerebrovascular accidents (strokes) all pose challenges to individuals who want to keep walking and stay fit, healthy and active.

From a fitness perspective, I highlighted the importance of proper posture and the need for adequate strength as well as how important it is to remain flexible while maintaining full range of motion in the ankles, knees, hips and lower back. Finally, I wrote about how walking is a single leg activity (you only ever have one foot on the ground when you are walking) so good balance becomes important when you are trying to walk around or over obstacles.

In this week’s column, I’ll be identifying some exercises that can help you improve your walking by addressing your posture, strength, flexibility and balance.

The first exercise might not look like it has much to do with walking, but, it is my favourite for working the “rear chain” and core muscles that help you build and maintain great posture. Remember, when you stand up straighter it becomes easier to lift your feet and avoid shuffling along.

The Bird Dog: Assume a kneeling position on the floor with your hands on the ground (the “all fours” position). Slowly lift your right arm and left leg until they are parallel to the floor. Hold for a 3 count. Repeat with the other arm and leg. Perform 5 repetitions with each side every other day. If you can’t do this exercise on the floor, stand with your hands balanced on a counter and do the move standing, lifting your right arm and left leg to the rear, hold for 3 seconds and then repeat with the other side.

Step Ups: Start with your right foot on the bottom step of a staircase. Use the handrail for balance, if necessary. Step up to place your left foot on the step and then step back down with the same foot. Perform 10 repetitions with your right foot staying in place. Repeat with the left leg and when you feel confident, move the working leg up to the second step. Do 3 sets of 10 repetitions every other day.

Hamstring and Hip Stretch Progression: You can do these stretches using the same bottom stair immediately following the step ups. Place your right heel on the bottom stair and stretch your torso forward over your extended right leg, sliding your hands down toward your shin. Imagine that you are trying to touch your stomach to your thigh, while keeping your leg straight. Hold for 20 seconds and then bend your leg while you place your foot flat on the step. Push your hips forward. You should feel a gentle stretch in the left hip flexor as well as in your left calf at this point. Hold for 20 seconds and then repeat both stretches with the other leg. It is important that you keep your eyes and chin up throughout both moves to prevent rounding the shoulders.

Walking Balance Series: Find an area where you can walk for about 20 feet and mark off a starting and ending point. You will be doing a series of 5 moves designed to help you walk with more comfort and confidence. Do them as a series with as little break in between as possible and use any assisted devices that you might need or hold someone’s hand, if necessary, for safety.

The five moves are:

1. Stand tall and “walk the plank” along an imaginary line on the floor, heel to toe, placing one foot in front of the other along the line.

2. Next, return to your starting point by walking sideways, moving one leg out to the side and dragging the back leg. Side step in the other direction back another 20 feet.

3. The third move is to strengthen the muscles around your shin that lift your toes and your foot when you are walking. Lift yourself up onto your heels and “heel walk” 20 feet.

4. Turn around and “toe walk” back to build strength in your calves.

5. The final move to do is to simply walk naturally back and forth in between the 20 foot markers. While you are doing this, slowly rotate your head and look from side to side to shift your focus. (If this causes you to lose balance, hold someone’s hand or hold on to a wall as you walk).

You can repeat the walking moves as often as you’d like and can do them along with the other postural, strength and flexibility moves outlined above. These are only a few of the hundreds of exercises and drills that can help build your confidence in your ability to walk. Like all exercises they can be modified to become easier or harder.

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