One of the best things about living in Northern Michigan is having access to all of our nearby lakes and rivers.

A natural byproduct of that proximity is boating is a very popular way to spend a day, an evening or even catch a sunrise.

I’ve had several conversations in the past few weeks with patients who are concerned their balance will not be in ship-shape when they are ready to get out on the water, so I thought I’d share a few insights.

Just standing and moving around on a boat can be challenging for many people. Even more challenging can be getting on and off the boat itself.

If you haven’t been out on a boat recently and you are wondering if your balance is up to par, I have a few tests you can try:

Time how long you can stand on one leg

As a general rule of thumb, you should be able to stand on one leg without the support of your arms or your other leg touching the other for at least 10 seconds on each side.

Stand near a wall and put your feet close together

Next close your eyes and see how long you are able to maintain your posture upright without touching the wall. You may notice when you close your eyes your body starts to sway. Some sway is good and it is a way for your body to get feedback about where it is in space. A problem arises when the sway becomes too much or uncontrollable. As you can imagine, a little sway on land could translate to a big sway on the water.

Squat down and touch the ground

If you’re able to safely and quickly do so on land, chances are good your flexibility and mobility are in decent shape. If you really struggle with this due to instability or stiffness in your joints, you may want to see your physical therapist for a tune-up before heading for the dock.

Here are a few things to consider next time you head for the high-seas (or lakes):

All aboard!

Getting on and off a boat can be rather tricky. Bridging the sometimes-wide gap over the water and the change in surface height from boat to dock both require good balance as well as strong and flexible legs. Once you safely board, there is the next challenge of staying upright against the dynamic rocking of the boat. Depending on how choppy the water is, it can be a pretty unstable surface.

Keep in touch

I’m usually not a huge fan of what we physical therapists refer to as ‘furniture walking’. This is the tendency of a person with impaired balance to walk around their house grabbing one piece of furniture and then the next instead of using an assistive device like a cane or walker. We’re not big fans of this because all it takes is one time for an object to be further than you expect to cause a tumble. Boating is an exception. I always encourage people with compromised joint function or balance issues to keep three points of contact with the boat at all times. The rougher the waves, the more important this becomes.

Stay as steady as a sailor

The great thing about balance is that while it may decline over time, some retraining can help it quickly improve. There are three important components to balance: your vision, your strength/flexibility, and your reactive control.

The great thing about those last two components is that with some work over only a few weeks, you can see dramatic improvements in your stability.

If you are unsure where to start, talk to your physical therapist before heading out on the water to ensure a bon voyage.

Jeff Samyn is a physical therapist, board certified orthopedic clinical specialist and certified strength and conditioning specialist at Northern Michigan Sports Medicine Center in Petoskey. He may be reached via e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. This information is not to be considered medical advice and is not intended to replace consultation with a qualified medical professional.