I am frequently asked, “What is the best whole body exercise?” Hmmm…something that will target most muscles in the body. Planks? Definitely a favorite of mine. Burpees? Though I am not sure what the current obsession is in the fitness community with burpees, if done correctly, I do like a good burpee. Downward dog? Certainly one of my go-tos for a good stretch of many muscles. But my hands-down favorite whole body exercise is (drum roll please): Single leg balance.
Go ahead. Balance on one leg, and think about what you are feeling. If you don’t feel much, maybe a little wobbly at the most, then there is a good chance you are doing it wrong. Some of my proudest moments in the clinic are when I prescribe standing balance for a high school athlete and said athlete looks at me like Do you not know the incredible athletic feats I am capable of?, then when I teach the athlete how to balance on one leg properly, they almost always exclaim, “That’s hard!”
It’s true. And it is not only a good whole-body exercise, it is one that everyone needs for a number of reasons. After all, you are probably familiar with the statistic that falls are the leading cause of both fatal and non-fatal injuries in older adults. What can help prevent falls? Balance training, starting with standing single-leg balance. In athletes, balance training is important in reducing injury risk as well as improving performance. Balance awareness improves a person’s ability to know where their body is in space, of which athletes require a high level in order to perform difficult, coordinated tasks for their sports.
What muscles do standing balance target? Foot muscles necessary for walking, running, and preventing plantar fasciitis, sprained ankles, and shin splints. Hip muscles required for walking, running, jumping, cutting, and preventing knee, hip, and low back pain. Core muscles that are used for all sports, activities, and well as promoting good posture and preventing low back pain and overuse injuries of the arms and legs. Shoulder muscles that promote proper throwing mechanics and every day use of our arms in addition to preventing rotator cuff injuries, tennis elbow, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Neck muscles that also support good posture and full neck range of motion as well as preventing headaches and jaw pain.
Take that, plank and burpee! Balance is essentially the key to physical injury prevention, well-being, and sport performance in my book. So I challenge you: Stand on one leg again. Still not feeling anything? Let’s try to mindfully balance by working through the following balance exercise:
Be sure to position yourself next to a countertop (if you feel your balance is especially poor, please do this with a trusted person standing right next to you) so that you can grab on if you feel unsteady.
Make sure your shoes are off! The problem with doing standing balance exercises with your shoes on is that your feet tend to “hang out” on the soles, allowing your foot muscles to cheat and inhibiting your body’s sense of where it is in relation to the ground.
Raise your right foot up so that only the ball is lightly in contact with the floor. Do not lift it yet.
Look straight ahead. Pick a point on the wall to focus on visually.
Let’s start with the left leg. Place your weight on your left leg, but don’t raise your right toe off the ground just yet. With the heel and ball of your left foot in contact with the floor, lift your toes, then slowly lower each down pinky to big toe. This will allow you to engage your foot muscles and promote a good arch.
Allow a slight bend in your left knee. This will cue the muscles on the front of your thigh to work.
Engage your glutes (butt muscles) by imagining wrapping them around to the back.
Take a deep breath and on the exhale, engage your core. This shouldn’t cause tension, and you should continue to breathe comfortably.
Rotate your palms so that they are facing forward.
Gently pull your shoulder blades down and back to open your chest.
Continue to keep your head and neck relaxed but looking straight ahead.
And finally…from your core, lift your right leg up to 90 degrees, with your knee comfortably bent.
Feel different? Feel difficult? (Hooray!) How long can you hold this? Generally speaking, a good goal is 30 seconds. Does it feel different balancing on your right compared to your left? That is quite normal, but it also means that one side may have a bit of weakness or less control that needs to be addressed somewhere along the chain from foot to head. Again, a good goal is symmetry from side to side.
If this exercise becomes too easy, you can make it harder by changing the ground beneath you. Adding a foam pad, pillow, or folded towel can increase the difficulty! Additionally, systematically moving your arms and free leg can challenge you to stay stable in your balance while other parts are moving. If this exercise is too hard, walk through the same steps, but keep the ball of your opposite foot on the ground next to your balancing leg for a little stability. Work toward placing the ball of your opposite foot directly in front of your balancing foot (called “tandem”) then finally progress to raise it.
There is so much more to balance and health that this, and let’s remember that this is a blog post not intended to diagnose or treat. It is merely my opinion based off of current research and literature. Come see me to have your specific needs addressed, but hopefully you can use this simple yet strategic balance activity to kick-start your physical health, performance, and safety.