Balance doesn't just look impressive in yoga class—it's crucial to staying strong, fit, and injury-free. Here's how to build it up, starting today.

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Getty ImagesYou sway while in Tree pose and wobble in Warrior 2. You're still young and strong, yet your balance just isn't there. What gives?

"Balance is something we take for granted," notes Gunnar Peterson, a personal trainer in Beverly Hills, Calif. Though often associated with warding off falls in the elderly, the ability to maintain your center of gravity is essential for everyone. "Think about walking on the beach or wearing heels," Peterson says. "That's a balancing act if I've ever seen one."

Equilibrium is complex, involving sensory input from the eyes and inner ears—as well as information from sensory receptors called proprioceptors, located in the muscles, tendons, and joints. Together with the muscles of your limbs and core, these sensors tell your body where your limbs are in space and allow you to maintain and change your position without losing your balance.

While age is a factor in diminished balance, it's not the only one. The more you sit and the less active you are, the more your balance will deteriorate, Peterson says: "It's a use-it-or-lose-it situation." But regular workouts aren't a stay-steady guarantee. "You can be in good shape but have horrible balance," notes exercise physiologist and fitness expert Michelle Lovitt, who sees some of the fit celebrities she works with struggle with stability.

Being a single-minded exerciser—only taking spin class or clocking treadmill miles, say—is partly to blame. "Consistently limiting your range of motion promotes a lack of body awareness and balance," explains Faheem Mujahid, owner of and master trainer at InFluence Atelier in Miami. "Left untreated, that causes a weakening of certain muscles and the overuse and fatigue of others, which can lead to injury." In a review of studies published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, balance training was found to reduce the risk of ankle sprains by 36%. Other research shows that it can help enhance athletic performance, improving muscle reaction, sprint times, and strength—all of which come into play when, for example, lunging for a ball on the tennis court.

Fortunately, you can boost your brain-body connection at any time. "Start by changing up your workouts so you're not overdoing one exercise form," Lovitt says. Keep yoga in the mix: A recent review found that it can help with balance.

And turn just about any standard exercise into a balance challenger by adding an element of instability—e.g., lifting one foot as you weight train or running on a soft surface—or incorporating different planes of movement. "Many exercises work in a sagittal plane, meaning you're moving straight ahead," Peterson says. "Adding angles causes you to shift your weight, which fires up the supporting muscles in your core and lower body in your effort to remain upright."

To steady yourself and score body benefits (better posture and fabber abs!), do balance moves daily, Peterson says. He designed a special workout to pump up your proprioception and muscles so you can react faster in unstable situations. Do two sets of each exercise in sequence three times a week, and soon you'll feel much more confident in Crow pose, on the tennis court—and, yep, in stilettos.

Next Page: Playful ways to build balance [ pagebreak ]
Playful ways to build balance
To hone your skills outside the gym, "you need to challenge your balance every day," says Richard W. Bohannon, professor in the physical therapy program at the University of Connecticut. "Do things as you would have when you were 10 years old." Some ideas:

Get a leg up: Put on your socks or pants while you're standing, and try brushing your teeth while lifting one foot.

Take it to your toes: With a hand on a chair for support, bring your feet together and slowly lift your heels until you're on your toes; hold for 30 seconds. When that becomes easy, balance without holding onto the chair, or do it with your eyes closed.

Walk the line: Pretend you're on a tightrope. Hold your hands out to your sides at shoulder height and walk heel to toe in a straight line for as long as you can.

Test yourself!
"The single limb stance is used by physical therapists to detect balance impairments," Bohannon says. One way to do it: Time yourself as you stand on one foot with your arms folded across your chest. Hold for 30 seconds; stop timing if your foot touches the ground or your body leans more than 45 degrees. Repeat with your eyes closed and try to hold the pose for 15 seconds. "By closing your eyes, you lose visual input and must rely on proprioception to stay grounded," Bohannon explains. Retest yourself every few weeks to measure your improvement.

The best stability gear
Adding an element of instability to workouts can activate more muscles, particularly in the core, per a review in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Include one of these tools in your regular workout routine to stay on firm footing.

BOSU Balance Trainer: This half-sphere ball has a flat surface that tips and wobbles when you stand on it, forcing your core to work harder to remain upright.

Airex Balance Pad: Your body weight makes your bare feet sink into this foam mat, upping the difficulty of squats and calf raises.

Stability ball: Doing resistance moves or sitting on this oversize ball demands serious core strength to keep from rolling over.

Balance board, wobble board, or Indo Board: Typically featuring a nonslip plank atop a rubber ball or roller, these gadgets require you to make small corrections to stay balanced without letting the board tip from side to side.

Medicine ball: Catching this orb—which comes in a variety of weights—boosts balance and may help prevent falls, says new research from the University of Illinois at Chicago.