In todays NYTimes there is a very informative article on balance training. The article narrows its focus to training for the elderly, as a way of enhancing posture and strength, thus avoiding the likelihood of falls and injuries. But balance training should be an important adjunct to any fitness program for any age group.
I come by this awareness naturally -- as a boy I was more interested in reading, music and girls than I was in sports. It wasn't until (A) Army basic training, and (B) my taking up kayaking, karate and weight training in my thirties, that I became an athlete. Please note that in each of those sports, balance is (as it were) pivotal. If you lose your balance in a whitewater kayak which by design is laterally unstable, you will flip upside-down, and you'd better hope that you have a bullet-proof Eskimo roll if you're halfway down a rapids when you lose it. If you are a karate-ka (practitioner of karate), balance is key, both in forming a solid platform and in executing kicks from a position of stability. If you're lifting weights, especially free weights, intuitively you know you don't want to be off balance in any way, lest there be a loud and embarrassing crash when something massive and metallic hits the floor.
More recently I've been using balance exercises in the context of physical therapy for two work-induced injuries -- tendonitis in both ankles, and a herniated lumbar disk which requires building up my core muscles (those surrounding one's mid-section -- in particular the abdominal and lower back muscles). My daily PT routine includes balancing on each foot for one minute on a thick pad, strengthening the ankle muscles. By concentrating on an erect, upright posture, those core muscles will also be firing.
Taking it to another level, I've started doing swimming, cardio and weight workouts at a fitness center. One of my exercises is (again) balancing on one foot for one minute on a BOSU ball. When the ball is placed with the flat side to the floor, it may be difficult to remain balanced on two feet. Doing so on one foot really kicks the challenge up a notch. Note in the image below how the man is crouched forward -- cheating. The woman is closer to the right postural idea. Alternatively, Placing the ball with the flat side up provides an even greater balance challenge (see image above) -- have a wall or other support handy in case you start to fall !
One needn't join a gym or have access to Pilates or BOSU equipment to begin a home fitness program. Stretches, sit-ups, push-ups, and a wide variety of exercises can be done at home, with this caveat -- it would be useful to consult with a certified physical therapist to design a home program that is suited to your age, health and level of fitness before doing something which could actually injure you. The minimal investment will pay for itself many times over, and ultimately you'll be leading a more balanced life in every way -- sitting, standing, walking, doing chores, driving in your car, fixing dinner, watching a movie, reading a book. Your body will thank you.