I think balance ranks just above stretching in terms of important elements of the fitness equation that don't get their due. We spend an awful lot of time talking about the importance of cardiovascular and resistance exercise--and for good reason. But walking, going up and down stairs, getting up and down out of a chair, bending over to pick something up off of the floor--each of these activities relies on your body's ability to balance itself in space and through varying degrees of movement.

In addition to making the activities of daily living easier, practicing balance and engaging in regular stretching makes you less likely to trip and fall. Tripping and falling can be embarrassing. But more importantly, you can injure yourself with a fall. And badly. The consequences of a fall for seniors are especially frightening. So, the more we do at any age to improve and maintain our balance and flexibility, the better.

There are pieces of exercise equipment you can purchase, designed specifically to help improve balance. But there are also loads of free ways you can incorporate balance work into your daily life and your regular exercise routine. Here are a few ideas:

  • Stand on one foot. When that becomes easy, practice raising your lifted leg out behind you or out to the side. You can do this throughout your day. Waiting for something to heat up in the microwave? Stand on one foot while you wait.
  • Do some of your normal strength-training exercises on one foot. Try one-legged biceps curls, or try combining a lateral raise with a side-leg lift of the opposite leg.
  • Practice sitting down into, and getting up from, a chair without using your arms.
  • Walk while alternating high knee lifts.
  • Do walking lunges up and down your hallway at home.
  • Sit on a stability ball instead of a chair. (If you are particularly unstable, have someone there to spot you.) Once you can sit on it easily, practice doing hip circles or shifting side-to-side on it. The idea is to improve your ability to adjust to the dynamic surface and maintain your balance. Then practice rolling down so that the ball is under your shoulder blades and rolling back up to sitting again. (Only do this when you feel confident in your ability to maintain your balance.)
  • Walk a tightrope. Not literally. I just mean walk on the floor like you would walk if you were on a tightrope. One foot directly in front of the other. Why? Well, the closer your feet are to one another width-wise, the harder it is to balance. The most stable position is having your feet underneath your hips, as they are when you walk normally. Narrowing that distance increases the balance challenge.

The cool thing about balance challenges is that you get to see the connection between your brain and your body get stronger almost immediately. You can attempt a balance exercise at the beginning of your workout, and almost without exception, if you try it again later in the workout it will be easier and/or you'll be able to maintain your balance longer. Your brain is so amazing that even when you're working on other exercises, its figuring out what you need to do differently to balance better. Try it. You'll have a whole new level of appreciation for your body.