When it comes to preventing slips and falls, you’ve probably heard the same advice over and over: Wear the right footwear, watch for hazards and take your time.
But what can you do to help improve your balance overall to stay upright? We talked to Florent Thézard, disability case manager at Manitoba Blue Cross and certified athletic therapist, to learn more about the muscles that impact your balance and how to strengthen them to improve your stability.
Maintaining muscle, maintaining balance
While there are a variety of muscles that work together to keep you on your feet, one muscle in particular deserves a lot of the credit, Thézard says.
“The gluteus maximus is the glamorous one everybody knows, but the muscle that’s going to save your life – the gluteus medius – is a lot smaller,” he says. Located on the sides of your hip bones, the gluteus medii (the pair of gluteus medius) are largely responsible for keeping your hips even – and therefore keeping you balanced.
“They’re very important muscles that not a lot of people put their focus on,” Thézard says. “And the more sedentary we become, the weaker those muscles.”
On top of affecting your stability, there’s a strong correlation between poor hip health and pain throughout the body, including knee pain and back pain. That’s why, even for younger people who are less at risk of slips and falls, maintaining hip health is vital.
Keeping your hip muscles strong
People who are moderately active may feel that they’ve done enough to maintain their balance – but a lot of exercises, like biking, do not work the gluteus medii at all.
"The gluteus medius only comes to life when you’re on one leg, and that’s why walking is awesome,” Thézard says.
But while walking activates these muscles, there are some targeted exercises, such as the single-leg stance and single-leg twist, that you can do to activate it further. Watch this demonstration video to see Thézard provide instruction on some exercises you can do to improve your balance.
“We focused on single-leg exercises because they really isolate that muscle, making that tiny little guy hold on for dear life,” he says. “We're trying to do things that challenge your balance so that the muscles responsible for it become stronger. And that’s what makes us more balanced.”
In his demonstration, Thézard’s exercises progressively become more difficult – starting on two feet, ending with movement on one foot.
“When you stand on one foot, your gluteus medius has to work a lot tougher to keep you upright, and when you minimize your centre of gravity even more – say, standing on your tippy toes, things become even more challenging,” he says.
Thézard also points to closing your eyes to add another level of difficulty.
"When you remove the cues that your visual system provides, your brain has to rely a little bit more on other cues now that it has less help – and that’s what makes keeping your balance harder,” he says.
The options that Thézard demonstrates are those that people of nearly all fitness levels can complete.
“You can do some of these while you’re brushing your teeth or even waiting for the bus,” Thézard says. “And when you’re working out, you can incorporate these stretches at the beginning (as a good warmup) or the end (to make them more of a challenge).”