It may not seem like an obvious connection, but being unsteady on your feet could be a sign that you’re not thinking clearly, either. You may be inclined to chalk up changes in your coordination to advancing age or muscle weakness. But research suggests that while balance problems may be early signs of dementia, balance exercises may actually help you preserve brain health.
“The brain is responsible for orchestrating the complex activities that are involved in balance and muscle coordination,” explains Louisa Sylvia, PhD, director of psychology at the Bipolar Clinic and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Maintaining balance and following through with smooth physical movement is a dynamic process that involves perceiving changes in the environment and initiating innumerable unconscious movements and shifts of position and posture in reaction to these changes.”
How Your Brain Keeps You Balanced
Your brain receives input from many sources: eyes, ears, and other sensory organs, as well as tendons, muscles, and joints. Maintaining your balance is a constant process of translating those cues to controlling the position and movement of your body and limbs.
Research suggests there is a strong link between gray matter density in the brain and balance stability. This becomes a greater concern as you age, because gray matter density tends to decline later in life. Other studies are exploring whether balance and coordination are also associated with increases in the number of synapses linking brain cells to one another and how the degenerative process associated with dementia may affect balance.
“As with many other mental abilities, these brain functions can deteriorate with age and physical inactivity, contributing not only to cognitive decline, but also to greater risk for falls,” Dr. Sylvia says. “Fortunately, research suggests that both balance and coordination can improve with practice.”
Exercises That Boost Balance
Research has also shown that balance exercises may also improve working memory. For example:
- Do a side-step exercise, in which you straddle a line on the floor and walk forward by placing your right foot just to the left of the line and your left foot just to the right of the line.
- Start on all fours and then extend your right arm and left leg. Hold for 10 seconds and then do the same thing with your left arm and right leg. Do five repetitions on each side.
Heel raises, yoga, and walking heel-to-toe are also helpful for balance. With any balance exercise, it’s a good idea to have a chair or something sturdy to hold if you feel yourself losing your balance. Dr. Sylvia also suggests talking with your doctor about starting any new exercise routine. A physical therapist may also suggest exercises to improve your gait and give your memory a leg up, too.