A number of recent studies suggest that balance and coordination exercises that keep you physically nimble may help keep you mentally nimble as well. That’s because the constant process of maintaining your equilibrium as you move through your day likely gives your brain cells a terrific workout, a Massachusetts General Hospital expert says.

“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 Mass General. “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.

“However, 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. Fortunately, research suggests that both balance and coordination can improve with practice."

Simple Workouts

Dr. Sylvia recommends checking with your doctor before engaging in any new form of exercise, and beginning slowly at first. Most effective balance exercises require no elaborate or expensive equipment, but they do require caution. At least initially, they should be practiced with a chair, wall, table or countertop nearby so that you can catch yourself if you begin to fall.

Try the following exercises to improve balance and coordination:

  • Yoga
    This ancient exercise uses many positions that involve balance and precise positioning.
  • Side Step
    Use chalk or tape to sketch out a straight line. Now position yourself with one foot on each side of the line. Lift your right foot and place it in front of you to the left of the line. Now lift your left foot and position it in front of you to the right of the line. Proceed to the end of the line.
  • Bird Dog 
    Kneeling on all fours, lift and extend your left arm and right leg. Hold for a slow count of 10, and then lower your limbs. Repeat, lifting your right arm and left leg. Do five repetitions.
  • Heel Raise
    Stand on both feet, knees and back straight, and slowly raise yourself until you are standing on your toes. Slowly lower yourself back to the floor. Repeat 20 times.
  • Walk Heel to Toe
    Looking straight ahead, carefully position one foot directly in front of the other in a straight line, toes and heel nearly touching, and step forward. Take 20 steps, then turn around and walk back.
  • Stand on One Leg
    Start with 20 seconds at first, and hold on to a chair back or other support for safety. Over time, see if you can stand without help, and build up to 30 seconds or more. Still too easy? Close your eyes for a greater challenge.

How the Brain Balances

To keep your body balanced and stable, the brain acts like a symphony conductor, paying close attention to input from myriad instruments—including sensory organs, tendons, muscles, joints, the eyes and inner ears—coordinating their activities and directing changes in movement, posture and position. This complicated process involves continual sensory input from balance organs to inform you of the position and movement of your body and limbs. These organs include:

  • Inner Ear (the vestibular system, which indicates the position and movement of your head and direction of motion)
  • Eyes (visual system, which helps you observe the position and movement of your head and body in relation to your surroundings)
  • Various Sensors (proprioceptors, which measure stretching, compression, deformation in your skin, muscles, joints and tendons)

Function and Structure

Better balance and physical coordination in older age have been associated with higher scores on tests of perceptual speed, executive control, attention, verbal memory and visuo-spatial abilities. The ability to maintain balance and coordinate muscle activity also appears to influence brain structure.

According to research published in the journal Gait & Posture, the link between balance stability and gray matter density is at least as decisive as the association between age and gray matter density. Other research has associated exercises focusing on balance and coordination with increases in the number of synapses linking brain cells to one another.

Researchers have also linked deterioration in the ability to balance and coordinate muscle movements with the degenerative process associated with dementia.