Health – that magical word that drives us all (or most of us anyway)  to get out of bed and go for a walk, or go to the gym/Pilates class, or eat a little better. We talk to people about health and physical activity regularly during our work day, and clearly the most common form of physical activity that people do to maintain health is walking. But is walking for health enough to keep us at our best?

In asking people randomly over the past few weeks, a surprising minority are aware of the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations and guidelines for physical activity in their age group. For those that are aware, the knowledge is pretty much limited to the fact that a few sessions of moderate to intense physical activity sessions per week are recommended.

The official WHO recommendation states that adults aged 18 – 64 years old should:

  • do at least 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week; 
  • or at least 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity; or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity throughout the week

What is not as obvious is the WHO recommendation that adults in this age group:

should also do muscle-strengthening activities at moderate or greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week, as these provide additional health benefits”.

For a long time we have been aware of the benefits of cardio vascular fitness, with walking being the obvious and easy form of exercise. Walking is fantastic for not only cardio vascular fitness, but also for our bone health and even natural Vitamin D intake, amongst other benefits.

Even less obvious are the recommendations in the next age group (65+) where the recommendation states:

“as part of their weekly physical activity, older adults should do varied multicomponent physical activity that emphasizes functional balance and strength training at moderate or greater intensity, on 3 or more days a week, to enhance functional capacity and to prevent falls”.

I often get asked the question “Can I improve my balance”? I feel that many people seem to resign themselves to the thought that poor balance is just an inevitable fact of ageing. Let me tell you it is not! Whilst improvements in balance may not appear to occur as quickly as you might notice an improvement in strength or fitness, if you stick to a consistent balance regime you will notice significant improvements. As I progress people through more challenging balance regimes, the feedback is “my balance is still terrible”. Don’t be fooled by the fact you are wobbling around with your balance exercise – if you are standing there perfectly balanced on one leg, or walking a perfect tandem (tightrope) line, then the exercise is probably too easy for you. The idea of a balance exercise is to challenge your balance – we want you wobbling around (in a very safe way) because it is the CORRECTION of imbalance that gets the improvements! To truly assess your balance improvements, don’t look at how you are wobbling now during an exercise, go back and try an exercise you were doing 2 months ago and see how you go. If you have been given a good progressive balance program, and have stuck to it consistently, you will be amazed and how much easier that initial exercise is – and that is how you measure your improvements!

But here’s the really important component of a balance program – doing a balance exercise or two, for a few minutes each exercise, every now and again, probably isn’t going to get you safely walking the undulating and uneven surfaces of life!

The general thought regarding an effective balance program is that you need to commit to a balance program over about 10-12 weeks, complete 3 sessions a week with each session being around 30-45 minutes in length, accumulating 90-120 minutes per week in total.

That 30-45 minute session doesn’t have to be all balance exercises, you can include some of the necessary cardio and resistance work, but you need to have a strong balance component.

In summary, balance is a critical component of our health and wellbeing and injury/accident prevention, especially as we get older. Your balance ability can be improved, but you need to work hard at it, and seek advice on appropriate exercises and appropriate progressions. And don’t forget to throw some resistance exercises in there too. As we know, life ain’t just a walk in the park!

Anthony Lance

SSPC Physiotherapist.

References available on request