Most of us take balance for granted. When we snowshoe, just like when we walk or run, we don’t think about how to balance ourselves when we take a step forward or backward. It just happens. As we age though, our balance naturally decreases because our muscles become weaker. Fortunately, there are exercises we can all do to postpone the aging affect and even improve our balance now and into the future.
By making these exercises part of a balanced exercise program, you can increase your strength, balance, and maybe even more importantly, your self-confidence when approaching a steep incline or narrow trail. It’s always best to do any exercise after a brief warm up, so don’t forget to go for a light walk or short hike before trying these. As with any exercise, have fun with it and set reasonable long and short-term goals.
Here are a few exercises for beginners that struggle with their balance on and off the trail:
Single Leg Raises
To perform this exercise, grab a chair and place it on one side of you. Slowly bend your knee and raise your foot off the ground in front of you, so that the angle between your thigh and upper body decreases. Raise your leg as high as it feels comfortable and hold it for 5 seconds. Then lower your leg slowly to the ground and repeat with the opposite leg.
If you find yourself having difficulty with this exercise , grab another chair and place it on the other side of you to help you balance. If you cannot hold your leg up for 5 seconds, just raise it and lower it slowly as if you were marching. Again, going slow is the key.
If this exercise is too easy, simply try balancing without the help of either chair. The next progression would be to perform this exercise with one eye closed and then both eyes closed.
Side Leg Raises
This exercise is done in much the same way as the single leg raise. Except now, raise the leg to the side instead of in front of you, keeping your leg straight.
One of the key checkpoints here is to make sure when you raise your leg to the side, your upper body/trunk doesn’t bend the opposite way to help lift your leg. Keep your spine in alignment and raise your leg without bending or shifting your upper body.
Again, this exercise should be done in a slow and controlled manner. Aim for 10 repetitions on both sides.
Walking Heel to Toe
Carefully put the heel of one foot in front of your toes of the other foot as if you were walking on a tightrope. If you need help balancing, use a long table, countertop or wall to help support you. Take a step with your back foot, placing the heel of your foot down first, in front of the toes of your other foot. Continue for 10 steps.
Try not to look down at your feet while walking and focus your attention forward. Don’t be discouraged if you struggle with this exercise at first. It can be quite challenging. If it’s easy for you, try closing one eye and then both eyes while you walk for an added challenge.
Chair Assisted Squat
Begin by sitting in a sturdy chair with good posture. A typical wooden chair works best. Avoid recliners, sofas, and stools for this exercise. Using both arms of the chair to help support you, stand up, focusing your attention in front of you.This is an assisted form of a squat, which is an excellent exercise for the glute (butt) muscles at the hip and for the quadriceps (anterior thigh) muscles at the knee.
If you need more of a challenge, use one arm to support you progressing until you can stand up without support. When not using your hands to support yourself, cross them in front of you as you perform the exercise.
As with all of these exercises, go slow and pause for 1-2 seconds when you stand up, making sure you are completely balanced before “squatting” back down into the chair. Remember, staying balanced while sitting down (eccentric phase) is just as important as standing up (concentric phase). Both phases should be done with a neutral spine (don’t slouch) and in a controlled manner.
Calf and Heel Raises
Using a chair to help support yourself, raise both of your heels off the ground and stand on your toes. Pause for 1-2 seconds and slowly lower your heels back down to the floor. Raise your toes so that you are balanced on your heels. Pause for 1-2 seconds and repeat. This is a very good ankle strengthening exercise and can be very challenging, especially when balancing on your heels. Aim for 8-12 repetitions. Avoid rocking back and forth too quickly between your heels and toes.
Don’t be discouraged if you find some or all of these exercises difficult. Go slow and do the best you can. With practice, these exercises will improve your balance and help give you the confidence to tackle the trails you never thought possible!