In addition to hearing difficulties and poor dental health, you might notice yourself struggling with your balance as you get older. If so, you're not alone. This issue that affects 13 percent of 65- to 69-year-olds and has been linked with an increased risk of falling, according to a February 2019 review in Laryngoscope Investigative Otolaryngology.
But there's one workout method that could help you stay steady as the years go by: Pilates. This exercise style helps build strength, stability and, importantly, balance — even when your entire training session is performed standing on your two feet, says Laura Fielding, NETA-CPT, AFAA-GFI, a certified Pilates instructor and master trainer at Club Pilates.
Ahead, learn more about the benefits of practicing standing Pilates exercises — including how they can boost your balance — and how to combine them into an expert-approved workout.
The Benefits of Standing Pilates Exercises for Balance
Pilates has long been shown to enhance balance, particularly in older adults. In an April 2015 meta-analysis in Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, researchers found that Pilates was linked to improved balance and a reduced the number of falls among seniors. What's more, a small April 2021 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health of 50 women over age 60 found that twice-weekly Pilates sessions improved balance in just three months.
The workout's balance-boosting effect may stem from a few factors. Practically every mat, reformer or standing Pilates exercise utilizes your core, Fielding tells LIVESTRONG.com. Located throughout your trunk, this group of muscles helps to keep your spine stable and protected from injury. Strengthening your core muscles can improve weight distribution and stability (and, in turn, balance) in older individuals, according to an October 2015 study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science. Another perk: A strong core may prevent back aches and pains as you age, Fielding adds.
Pilates also targets your "stabilizer" muscles, according to Fielding. These are the muscles that co-contract during a movement to protect the joint and maintain proper alignment, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). During a properly performed standing oblique crunch, for instance, your entire core — including the muscles along your anterior (the muscles along the front of your body) and posterior chains (the muscles along the back of your body) — will engage to stabilize your spine and keep you from toppling over.
On the same token, "your ankle [muscles] are big stabilizing muscles, especially with some of the standing work," Fielding says. "As people get older, they lose a little bit of strength and stability through their legs and ankles. So, strengthening them [helps to] stabilize, and that's going to prevent falls as people get older."
Aside from improving balance, standing Pilates exercises can also make the movements you carry out in your daily life easier. "Being more stable and strong is going to help you with your everyday [activities]: getting in and out of chairs, getting on and off the toilet bowl, reaching up into a cabinet. You're focusing on what you're [doing] — you're not going to stumble and fall over," Fielding says.
6-Exercise Standing Pilates Workout to Improve Balance
If getting down on the floor for a mat Pilates session is a challenge, consider a balance-focused standing Pilates workout, such as Fielding's circuit, which she demonstrates below. These six standing Pilates exercises utilize just your body weight and can be modified to match your fitness level and accommodate any fatigue.
Ready to get started? Perform 10 to 15 reps of each balance Pilates exercise, taking a 30-second rest in between each move, and repeat the circuit for a total of three rounds, Fielding suggests. For the plank, hold your position for 15 to 20 seconds, she recommends.
Once you've built up your strength and balance and are looking to progress, you can perform the squats, step-ups and heel raises while holding light weights, lower your plank closer to the floor (think: rest your hands on your couch cushion rather than on your kitchen table) or work up to a 1-minute plank hold, she says.
Things You'll Need
A small box or stair
An exercise mat is optional, but recommended
If you want to switch up the order of the standing Pilates exercises, just make sure to start your workout with the squats and step-ups, as these movements utilize multiple muscle groups at once and can be more fatiguing, Fielding says.
1. Body-Weight Squat
Air squats mimic movements you perform daily, including standing up from your couch and crouching down to pet your dog, Fielding says. Plus, they help keep you strong and stable as you age.
"Bodyweight squats are a great exercise for building strength in the legs and glutes while promoting flexibility and strength at the ankle joint," she explains. "The stronger and more flexible we are, the better our balance will be."
- Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and brace your core. Focus on keeping your feet rooted into the ground and your core tight the entire time.
- Extend your arms out in front of you and slowly bend your knees as you push your hips back to lower toward the floor. Focus on lowering your body as if you were going to sit on a chair.
- Lower down as far as comfortable, or until your thighs are parallel with the floor.
- Pause for a moment at the bottom of your squat.
- On an exhale, reverse the motion by pressing through your heels to return to standing. As you stand, lower your arms back to your sides.
To make body-weight squats easier, perform them while holding onto a counter or the back of a stable chair. Alternatively, gently sit onto a chair at the bottom of the squat before rising up to standing.
Step-ups improve your balance by building strength and stability throughout your lower body, Fielding says. "The older population tends to fall, usually on a staircase, so step-ups help keep the quads and glutes really strong and also help with ankle stability," she explains. As you progress, continue increasing the height of your box, she recommends.
- Stand behind a small box or stair with your feet hip-width apart and your arms hanging at your sides. Draw your shoulders down and back and engage your core by bracing as if someone were about to punch you in the gut.
- Standing tall, lift your right foot off the floor and place it on top of the box. You should have a slight bend in your right knee.
- Press through your right foot to straighten your right leg and lift your left foot off the floor. Bring your left foot up to meet your right foot on the top of the box.
- Shift your body weight into your left foot and lift your right foot off the box, then lower your right foot to the floor behind you.
- Keeping your right foot firmly planted on the floor, lift your left foot off the box and lower it to the floor to meet your right foot, returning to the starting position.
To make this move easier, step onto a small box rather than a stair or bench, and gently hold onto a railing, wall or counter for additional support.
3. Chair Plank
The plank helps build strength throughout your entire core, which provides stability and reduces the odds that you tip over when you lose your footing, Fielding says. You can start with your feet close to the chair. As you get stronger, you can walk your feet back and then ultimately progress the exercise down to the ground.
- Stand 1 to 2 feet behind a chair with your feet hip-width apart and your arms hanging at your sides. Draw your shoulders down and back and engage your core by bracing as if someone were about to punch you in the gut.
- Lean forward and place both of your hands on the chair, keeping them aligned with your shoulders.
- Rise up onto your toes, lifting your heels, and step your feet back until your body forms a straight line from head to heels.
- Hold this position, squeezing through your glutes and thighs, keeping your core engaged and maintaining a neutral neck.
To modify, swap the plank for the bird dog exercise on the floor: Start in a table-top position, lift one knee and the opposite hand off the floor, then slowly extend them in front of your body and up toward the ceiling. The exercise works similar muscle groups and provides a balance challenge, but it may be gentler on your body.
4. Standing Single-Leg Hip Extension
This standing Pilates exercise not only helps to improve balance, as you're supporting all of your body weight on one leg, but it also helps open up your hip flexors and strengthen your hamstrings and glutes, Fielding says.
- Stand with your feet slightly closer than hip-width apart and your hands resting on your hips. Draw your shoulders down and back and engage your core by bracing as if someone were about to punch you in the gut.
- Shift your body weight into your left leg, then slowly lift your right foot off the floor behind you, keeping your right foot flexed and right leg straight.
- With your hips square and spine neutral, kick your right leg back as far as is comfortable. Pause, then draw your right leg forward and briefly rest your right foot on the floor next to your left, returning to the starting position.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
To modify, gently hold onto a wall or counter for additional support. Or, perform the exercise while lying on your stomach on the floor until you build up enough lower-body and core strength.
5. Standing Heel Raise
This exercise helps to build the ankle strength and stability that supports better balance, Fielding says. When you're ready to progress, try Pilates prances, lifting just one heel at a time and alternating sides, she suggests.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your arms hanging at your sides. Draw your shoulders down and back and engage your core by bracing as if someone were about to punch you in the gut.
- Keeping your spine long, chest lifted and eyes forward, shift your body weight into your toes, press through the ground and lift your heels off the floor as high as comfortable. Maintain an even pressure across all 10 toes and avoid allowing your ankles to roll outward.
- Slowly lower your heels back to the floor to return to the starting position.
To make this exercise easier, you can do it seated to build up initial ankle strength before progressing to a standing position.
6. Standing Oblique Crunch
"This is a great balance exercise because it builds core strength, and it also has you standing on one foot which will help strengthen the ankles and [allow you] to work on the stability of the ankles," Fielding says. Once you're confident performing the standing oblique crunch with good form, try the movement while balancing on one leg, she recommends.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your hands resting on your hips. Draw your shoulders down and back and engage your core by bracing as if someone were about to punch you in the gut.
- Place your right hand behind your head, your fingertips resting gently. Then, shift your body weight into your left foot.
- Allowing your hip to externally rotate, draw your right knee up toward the ceiling at your side, your knee in line with or slightly in front of your body. Simultaneously, draw your right elbow down toward your right knee, flexing laterally through your obliques. You should feel a stretch through the left side of your trunk.
- Slowly lower your right foot to the floor and straighten your torso to return to the starting position.
- Repeat all reps on the right side before switching to the left.
To make this move easier, gently hold the back of a chair or a counter with your free hand for additional support.
- Laryngoscope Investigative Otolaryngology: "Balance and gait in the elderly: A contemporary review"
- Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: "Effect of pilates exercise for improving balance in older adults: a systematic review with meta-analysis"
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: "Effect of Three Months Pilates Training on Balance and Fall Risk in Older Women"
- Journal of Physical Therapy Science: "Effects of core muscle stability training on the weight distribution and stability of the elderly"
- ACE: "Muscles in Motion"
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