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Simple Exercises for Balance and Stability

I recently participated in a challenge started by Chris Hinshaw (I learned about it via Dr. Aaron Horschig) called the “Old Man Test” challenge. (If you're curious, you can see me performing it here. )

Let me start by saying that this would be quite challenging for most people at any age. The reason I can perform it is a) I don’t have a disability or condition that prevents my body from moving in these ways and b) while I’ve not been training specifically for this challenge, I include exercises in my training program that have prepared me to execute this skill (and I’ve been training for many years). And when I’m not making an “Old Man Test” challenge reel, I sit down to put on my shoes.

The qualities needed for this challenge are not just good balance (which is the ability to sense and orient our bodies in space using vision, touch and motion as inputs), but also core stability and a decent amount of hip mobility and strength. These skills need to be practiced over time. The challenge is an example of a potential endpoint, it’s not a starting point.

Single Leg Balance Test Challenge

So I thought I would start my own challenge, one that is accessible to more people. I’m calling it the single leg balance test challenge (I did not invent this test, it is an assessment widely used by fitness and healthcare professionals). Before you begin, make sure you have sturdy support nearby (a wall, a person to spot you) in case you lose your balance.

[For your safety, please do not attempt this challenge if you have difficulty balancing–instead skip the challenge for now and go right to the exercise to improve balance further down in this article] .

Single Leg Balance Test Intructions:

(Here's a video demonstration.)

  1. Bend one knee to lift it off the ground so that you’re standing on the opposite leg (the test leg)

  2. Hold this position for 20 seconds

  3. The test is over if your up leg touches the ground or you make contact with the support before 20 seconds is up

  4. If you are able to stand on one leg for 20 seconds without needing support, you pass the challenge

  5. Repeat steps 1-4 for the other leg

The test is over after 20 seconds, OR if before 20 seconds:

❌ the up foot touches down:

❌ you make contact with the support:

✅ If you can hold this position for 20 seconds, you pass the challenge:

Emiko Jaffe balancing on one leg near a wall for support

The ability to stand on one leg isn’t just a cool feat, the inability to do so can be an indicator of an underlying health condition and should be discussed with a healthcare provider. But for many of us, we just need some practice balancing on one leg.

If you have difficulty balancing on leg, start training with this exercise:

Single leg balance with support (and progressions):

  1. Using a wall, sturdy immovable piece of furniture or a person to support you, bend one knee to lift it off the ground so that you’re standing on the opposite leg (the test leg)

  2. Hold for 30-60 seconds

  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 for the other leg

  4. Practice this at least 3x/week

  5. As your balance improves, start relying less on the support (but have it available) for a few seconds at a time until you can stand on one leg without support for 30 seconds.

Start with this:

Progress to this:

When you can balance on one leg for 60s without support, progress to this exercise:

Perform the same exercise above but stand on an unstable surface. A Bosu ball or wobble board would be a pretty huge progression, so first try a foam pad or a yoga mat folded up multiple times to create a rectangle big enough to accommodate your foot, like this:

Emiko Jaffe balancing on one leg on a folded up yoga mat near a wall

As I mentioned before, the inability to pass the single leg balance test is a screen for underlying health conditions, so please discuss this with your doctor especially if practicing the single leg balance exercise doesn’t improve your balance.

As someone who is older (aging is a privilege!), maintaining the ability to balance and recover quickly if I stumble is very important to me. I want to increase the chances of staying independent and active well into my real old years (like my 70’s and beyond–50 doesn’t seem old to me, honestly). So I’ll continue to train in ways that may also happen to prepare me for fun, spontaneous “look what I can do!” challenges.

I encourage you to train for the activities that are meaningful to YOU in a reasonable and sustainable way.

Interested in starting a structured strength training program for beginners that won’t shame, overwhelm or deplete you? Check out my program, Ease Into Movement & Strength at Home. It's available now via instant download.

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