Someone in the woods balancing on a log

Balance Exercises for Seniors

This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Martin Duggan in 2021

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Exercising and staying active is necessary for your body, not just to lose fat, but more importantly, so that you can remain strong, fit, and healthy. Especially as your body ages, it requires that you pay more attention to it and attune yourself to its specific needs. Regular exercise can make you feel energized, satisfied, and capable at any age. 

One of the problems that you might face could be related to balance disorders. Balance issues are common among seniors. In fact, balance disorders are among the most common problems that force elderly people to require medical attention. 

To begin, let’s start by understanding what factors can affect your body’s balance. After that, we can focus on the exercises you can follow to regulate optimum health.

Common Symptoms of Balance Disorders

To understand if you or a loved one is experiencing such problems, it is helpful to learn more about the symptoms that indicate a balance disorder. The presence of any of these symptoms requires a medical evaluation right away, as these can be caused by both benign or potentially deadly problems. These might include:

  • Vertigo or dizziness: Vertigo is the sensation of motion despite being still. It often takes the form of a feeling that oneself or one’s surroundings are swaying or spinning. Such a feeling of dizziness is one of the most common symptoms experienced by anyone with a balance disorder. 
  • Loss of orientation: This refers to a loss of our relationship to the horizon. When we lose orientation, we have a difficult time knowing what is up, down, left or right. Someone who has lost orientation may even have a feeling of free-falling, though this is usually very brief. 
  • Loss of proprioception: Proprioception is the ability to sense where our body parts exist within space. When we close our eyes, we still have an awareness of where our hands and feet are-even after we move them. This sense is something we take for granted until it’s gone. Without proprioception a person will not be able to stay balanced when they close their eyes.
  • Lightheadedness or pre-syncope: Sensations of faintness can cause loss of balance. Depending on the severity of the condition (among other factors), this symptom can range from mild to severe. When severe, pre-syncope becomes syncope which is a medical word for passing out.

Alongside these symptoms that are directly related to balance, seniors might also face other symptoms, depending on the cause of their imbalance. These might include:

  • Nausea or Vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Fluctuations in heart rate
  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Feelings of panic or loss of control
  • Blurred Vision
  • Reduced hearing
  • Long or short periods of confusion

If faced with any of these symptoms or disorders, your doctor may want to discuss whether you need a medical alert bracelet. Also, take a look at our article about symptoms to look for after a fall just in case you find yourself in a situation in which you have to respond to a fall.

Balance Disorders and Causes

Now that we understand some ways in which we might be able to detect the onset of a balance disorder, we can go over some common balance disorders faced by seniors. 

Some commonly faced balance disorders amongst older people are based in the inner ear and include:

  • Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV): There are calcium crystals in your inner ear that help control your balance. When these are dislodged and move away from their normal positions, BPPV occurs. As the name suggests, vertigo is the most prominent symptom of BPPV. 
  • Labyrinthitis: Like BPPV, Labyrinthitis is also a condition related to the vestibular system in the inner ear, which is the part of our body that is responsible for our balance. It occurs when a portion of the inner ear known as the labyrinth becomes inflamed or infected. Common symptoms include persistent vertigo, which is often accompanied by nausea and vomiting. 
  • Vestibular neuritis: This is also an inflammatory disorder, which can occur if the nerves in your inner ear in the area related to your balance system are affected. Symptoms may include dizziness and difficulty walking due to imbalance, as well as nausea and vomiting. 

As we can see the inner ear is an important component of the body’s ability to maintain balance. However, we must not forget that the inner ear communicates ultimately with parts of the brain that allow for the maintenance of balance. Therefore any condition which causes temporary or permanent brain dysfunction can cause any or all of the symptoms associated with balance loss.

Temporary causes of balance loss in the brain can include:

  • Transient ischemic attacks (TIA) or ministrokes
  • Metabolic abnormalities (including electrolyte imbalances, problems with blood sugar, waste accumulation related to kidney failure, etc)
  • Infections like meningitis or encephalitis
  • Autoimmune flares (multiple sclerosis flares for example)
  • Medications
  • Vitamin Deficiencies

Permanent causes of balance loss in the brain can include:

  • Stroke
  • Brain Tumors
  • Scarring from prior brain injury or previous surgery
  • Parkinson’s Disease and Lewy Body Dementia
  • Hydrocephalus (too much fluid around the brain)

Before we move on, we should note once more that loss of balance can sometimes mean a serious and time-sensitive problem has occurred. The sooner a stroke patient gets to a hospital with a stroke center, the more likely their stroke can be cured before it becomes permanent! If you’re worried that someone’s symptoms could be due to a stroke, you need to call 911 right away!

Now that we know about the possible causes of balance disorders, let’s read on to understand what exercises you can do to improve your condition if you live with one. 

Balance Exercises for Seniors

To begin building an exercise regimen for yourself, divide your routine into three blocks: exercises that you can do while standing up, those that you can do while sitting down, and those that you can do while lying down. You should include all three types of exercises every day for a well-rounded workout. 

In this article, we include five exercises for each type. You can feel free to choose and do the activities with which you feel most comfortable. Remember, it is crucial to listen to your body, and is most often a good idea to have someone there to help to avoid injury. And before you start any exercise regimen for balance, make sure you clear it with your doctor first! Your doctor will tell you if it is too risky.

Exercise 1: Head Rotation

Start simple. Stand straight with your feet close to each other. Begin by rotating your head clockwise for ten rotations, then counter-clockwise for another ten rotations. After that, move your head up and down for 30 seconds, then tilt your head from side to side for 30 more seconds. Remember to pace yourself and take things slow. Otherwise, you might feel dizzy and disorientated. If you don’t feel safe doing these exercises while standing up, do it while sitting down for a few days before you start standing up.

Exercise 2: Single Leg Balancing

Single leg balancing is another exercise that people of all ages can do, and that is very beneficial for your balance. Put the foot of your right leg against the side of your left knee. Count to ten as you stand like this. After that, repeat the same thing after switching your legs for the same duration. Do not be too hard on yourself if you cannot hold the stance for ten counts the first few days. If you stick to doing it regularly, you will gradually get better at it. You can also hold onto a wall or a chair for some support.

Exercise 3: Rock the Boat

Rock the boat is a very commonly advised exercise for seniors with balance disorders and with good reason. Start by standing with your feet apart just enough to keep them in line with your hips or shoulders. Make sure you are looking straight ahead at all times–this helps by keeping your head level and avoiding sudden movements so that you do not feel blurry or dizzy. Raise your right foot to the side, and hold your stance for ten counts. After that, do the same with your left feet. Repeat this process at least five times, and increase as you get used to it.

Exercise 4: Tightrope Walking

Walk over to one side or corner of the room. Put one foot forward, then place your other foot directly ahead of it so that the toes of your foot touch the heel of the other one. In this manner, walk across to the opposite wall or corner of your room. Keep your eyes fixed on a single point at the other side. Make sure to do this exercise slowly and hold your pose for a couple of seconds with each step.

Exercise 5: Side-Stepping

This one is relatively easy. All you need to do is to walk from one end of your room to the other, but sideways, instead of walking as you normally would. Repeat the walk five times or more, as per your comfort. 

Exercise 6: Squatting

This one is only technically sitting–but it is beneficial for strengthening your core and improving your balance. Stand up straight and keep your back upright and stiff. Move your legs so that they are wide apart. Raise your hands so that they are straight in front of you. Next, slowly bend your legs while maintaining your posture. Count to 10 before you release. Repeat this thrice. 

Exercise 7: Weight Shifting

Now we can move on to some exercises you can do while sitting down. Begin by sitting on the edge of your bed or by sitting on a chair. Maintain as straight a posture as you can. Very slowly, shift the weight of your body to your right side and hold it so for ten seconds before moving back to your previous position. Do the same on the other side. You can repeat this entire set at least 10-30 times, depending on the level of your comfort. 

Exercise 8: Single-Leg Extension

Sit on your chair upright. Put your hands to your sides to steady yourself against your seat. While maintaining a straight posture, raise your right leg so that it is straight in front of you. Hold your leg in the air for ten counts, and then repeat the same with your other leg. Remember, your legs should not bend at the knee. Repeat the entire set.

Exercise 9: Sitting and Standing

Remain seated in your chair for this one. Keep your feet firmly planted on the floor and your hands straight ahead. Without using your hands or arms and keeping your torso upright, move your hips forward so that your weight presses against your feet and then stand up. After that, maintain the same posture and sit back in your chair while still not using your arms. Repeat this process at least ten times. 

Exercise 10: Pelvic Rolling

For this one, you need to sit down on a mat on the floor. Keep your legs in front of you and your hands at your side to support you against the floor. While keeping your back straight, move your right leg to your extreme right, and then to your left to go over your left leg. Try not to let your feet touch the ground to create high arches with your legs as you move. Do this for ten counts. Repeat the same with your other leg. 

Exercise 11: Rolling

Lie down on a mat on your floor. Bring your knees close to your chest and wrap your hands around them to push them more. Make sure your head is touching the ground. Slowly roll over to your right, move back to the center, and then move to your left. Make sure to do this slowly so that you do not worsen your vertigo or dizziness. 

Exercise 12: Tabletop Stance

Lie down on your stomach. Then, raise yourself so that you are supported by your forearms and knees. This is the tabletop position. Look straight ahead and hold this stance for 20 seconds before relaxing back into a resting position. 

Exercise 13: Back Leg Stance

Repeat the stance from the previous exercise. Slowly, straighten your right leg and raise it so that it is right behind you. Hold your position for ten seconds, and then repeat the same with your other leg. While doing this, you must look straight up and ahead. 

Exercise 14: Back Kicks

Maintain the same position as in the last exercise. This time, instead of holding your raised leg, bring it down and then raise it again. Do this ten times for each leg.

Exercise 15: Lie Down

You are all done! Give yourself some rest by lying down on your back against the mat or the floor and keeping your hands and feet apart so that you are entirely relaxed. After an exercise session, it is essential that you do not hurry into your next activity and that you give yourself some time to rest and recuperate. Rushing your body might accelerate vertigo and lightheadedness and might even cause you to faint. 

Conclusion

With age, multiple factors can affect your body’s balance. Many of these factors are related to diseases and illnesses that might require immediate medical attention. Therefore it is extremely important to call your doctor right away if you develop a loss of balance. If someone experiences a sudden loss of balance, that could be a sign of a stroke and requires a 911 call right away. 

Once your doctor has evaluated you and given you the okay, there are some exercises that you can do regularly to help counter such effects. Even if you don’t necessarily have any issues with balance at the moment, you can incorporate these exercises into your routine to continue to maintain your health. If you or someone you know is a caregiver for an older adult, you can easily help them follow these exercises regularly. 

Sources: 

  1. National Institute of Aging, Balance Problems and Disorders, www.nia.nih.gov
  2. Mayo Clinic, Balance Problems, www.mayoclinic.org

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