Pardon the pun, but balance and flexibility are definitely very tightly related, says physical therapist Emily Gustin, DPT, who specializes in treating patients with balance issues. “When muscles and tendons aren’t able to move freely and evenly, it’s harder to do everything–including balancing,” she adds.
That’s especially important because range of motion (or mobility) tends to decrease later in adulthood due to changes in both biology and behavior. Not only does muscular flexibility decline somewhat over the lifespan, but “as our bodies change, we’re not usually adding new activities into our lives,” Dr. Gustin explains. “Our movement patterns, then, also get smaller and less diverse.” So, for example, if you’re only moving backwards and forwards, moving side to side will be harder because your body simply isn’t used to it.
The good news: While baseline flexibility of course varies person to person, a daily stretching routine will boost your personal flexibility factor. And according to Dr. Gustin, it can even help you catch yourself if you lose your balance. “If you’re already used to moving in all these different directional planes, you’ll be more able to protect yourself from falling because off-balance won’t feel as ‘out of the ordinary,'” she says.
The muscles groups below tend to be the most restricted areas, according to Dr. Gustin. “But stay aware of anywhere that feels tight,” she says, “because it can be different for everybody.”
4 stretches to improve balance
To maintain balance-promoting mobility, Dr. Gustin suggests aiming to do these four exercises for 30 seconds, once a day. “Thirty seconds is enough time to take a couple deep breaths and get through that period that’s a little uncomfortable,” she says. “Over time, you can build up to a minute at a time, and/or to twice a day.” If simply stretching feels monotonous, Dr. Gustin fully endorses playing a podcast, audiobook, or show that’ll keep you distracted–and working on your balance.
1. Calf stretch for ankle mobility
If you have a step with a railing, stand on the balls of your feet with your toes resting on the edge of the bottom step. Holding on to the rail, sink one heel down below the level of the step. (Alternatively, you can flex your foot up against a wall and lean forward.) Repeat with the other heel.
How it helps: “As we get older, we can tend to shuffle, or even just not pick up our feet as much when we walk, and if your calves are tight, then you’re more likely to be plantar flexed, where your feet point down,” says Dr. Gustin. So flexing your toes in the opposite direction will help to keep the muscles in your feet and calves more balanced and increase their range of motion. “Stretching the calves can really help us move more dynamically without tripping or falling,” she adds.
2. Runner’s stretch for hip flexors
Stand with your hands on the back of the chair or a countertop for balance. To stretch your right leg, put your left hand on the surface supporting you, and kick your right heel up toward your butt. Grab the right ankle with your right hand. Stand up really tall, keeping the front of your thigh parallel to the left with knee pointing toward the floor (as if you were standing on it). For a deeper stretch, gently push your hips straight forward. Repeat with the other leg.
How it helps: “The hip flexors are part of the muscle group that helps bring our knees up toward our body,” explains Dr. Gustin. “They can get really tight, which puts us in a forward-leaning posture. This keeps our stride shorter and less confident.” So loosening them up will help improve your posture and keep you upright, and your center of gravity from being pitched too far forward.
3. Seated stretch for the hamstrings
Sit on the ground with both legs straight out in front of you. Square your shoulders and bend one knee open, externally rotated in the hip socket if that’s available to you. (Otherwise, simply rest the sole of the foot on the ground with the bent knee pointing up.) Reach with your arms toward the foot of the straight leg. You may only reach your knee–that’s okay! A little discomfort is normal, but back off if you feel anything like sharp, shooting pain. Repeat on the other side.
How it helps: “Tight hamstrings will inhibit a lot of your mobility,” says Dr. Gustin. “Another important reason to stretch your hamstrings is that they can put a lot of pressure on the lower back if they’re too tight.” Plus, because of they’re location, between your glutes and feet, they play an integral role in all lower body movements, so if they’re not functioning optimally, you have a better chance of losing your balance while walking and moving about your day.
4. Stretch for “tech neck”
Stand up tall, holding on to a chair or the edge of a kitchen sink for support if needed. Keep your body still from the shoulders down, while you turn your head as far to the right as you can. Repeat to the left. Bring your head back to center and gently look up toward the ceiling, then tuck your chin down to look toward your feet. To deepen the stretch, combine these four directions into full circles of the head, to the right and to the left.
How it helps: “Pretty much everybody in our society is in this slumped, rounded posture because of phones and computers,” says Dr. Gustin. “Not only that, but as we get older, we use less of our neck’s range of motion. This forces you to turn your whole body when reacting to things you see or hear.” And that can throw you off balance in a way that just being able to rotate your neck isn’t like to do.
Tight muscle can throw off your center of balance and make you more susceptible to trips and falls. Doing a few daily stretches that target key muscle groups–calves, hip flexors, hamstrings, and neck–will increase the range of motion (or mobility) or these areas of the bodies and help improve your balance. Try to perform the stretches to improve balance above for 30 seconds per day, working up to 60 seconds.
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Tags: Fitness Tips