Research has shown many times that the strength of your leg muscles greatly influences the quality of your balance and hence your ability to prevent falls.
Generally, as people get older, they use their leg muscles less which allows those muscles to get smaller and weaker. This process is very slow and happens over many years. Most people will not notice it until one day they have trouble getting up from the couch or going up stairs.
In order to slow or prevent this loss of crucial muscle mass, it is important for people over 60 to do regular leg strengthening exercises. This is a broad subject, but in this article I would like to focus on the findings of a study recently published in Geriatrics and Gerontology International (March 2009).
The study, done at the University of Porto in Portugal and led by Fernando Ribeiro, showed that doing strength exercises for two key muscle groups in the lower leg helped participants perform better in two balance tests.
The muscles they focused on strengthening where the calves, located on the back of your lower leg just below the knee, and the dorsiflexors, located on the front of your lower leg just below the knee.
These two muscle groups work together to control your foot when you are standing or walking. Riberio’s exercise protocol simply had participants strengthen these two muscle groups 3 times a week for five minutes during the 6-week study.
In the study, they used elastic bands for the exercises, but I am going to show you how to strengthen the same muscles without any equipment. You will do two exercises:
Exercise 1 – Toe Points
Sit on the edge of a chair with both feel flat and your knees bent at 90 degrees. Extend the knee of one leg so that one foot comes off the ground and moves forward slightly. Point your toe forward. This is your starting point.
From there, keeping your leg in place and only moving the ankle joint, pull your toes back towards your shins. Then point your toes forward again. Do 10-15 repetitions and then switch to the other leg.
As you pull the toes back, you should feel the muscles on the top of your shin just below your knee contracting.
Exercise 2 – Calf Raise
Stand facing your sink with both feet pointing straight ahead. Your feet should be about 6 inches apart from each other and 6 inches away from the sink. Hold on to the sink and countertop for balance and rise up onto your toes. Both heels should come off the ground a couple inches. Lower down slowly. Do 10-15 repetitions.
As you go up onto your toes, you should feel the muscles on the back of the lower leg contracting.
You can do 1 or 2 sets of each exercise 2 or 3 times per week, just not two days in a row.
These two exercises will help strengthen your lower legs and that should help your balance, but remember that these exercises are just one piece of the puzzle. If you want to do all you can to help your balance, you should be following an organized program of balance exercises and leg strengthening exercises.