Balance in life comes in many forms whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. It is a key to health and vitality. Today let’s look at the physical side of balance. Whether young or old, balance keeps us healthy and reduces the potential risk of injury. For athletes, balance is the key for being either a mediocre or excellent athlete. For the rest of us, balance enables us to move through life freely and without hesitation.
There are key components that keep our balance in check; a combination of sensory input from our eyes, a correctly functioning inner-ear system, along with an awareness of the position and movement in our feet, legs, and arms. Especially with sedentary living, these components can be compromised as we age, making a lack of balance a key cause of injuries and increase in fearful attitudes. According to the CDC, “each year, millions of older people—those 65 and older—fall. In fact, more than one out of four older people fall each year, but less than half tell their doctor. Falling once doubles your chances of falling again.”
Does this mean we accept this as a part of aging? I say a resounding NO! Studies have shown that, even among adults over seventy years old, it’s not too late to start a balance-improvement program and get results. For example, a 2001 study published in the British Medical Journal showed that both men and women ages seventy-five and older had a 46 percent reduction in falls over a year’s time after working on their balance.
So what can we do about it?
Let’s begin by looking at the factors we can take responsibility for:
Vision – In addition to the obvious, use your eyes to focus more. When trying to balance, pick a spot about 20 feet ahead of you and focus on that spot while doing a balance movement. Often I see people looking down towards their feet and more so than not, this will cause them to lose their balance. Bring that head up and look ahead or on a fixed object.
Core Strength – Get those core muscles working for you! There’s a difference between holding in your stomach to look better verses using your entire core to lift that torso and engage in all the muscles around your waist and spine.
Get stronger! – The more you engage your muscles in movement, especially full range of motion, the greater feedback loops you will have to the brain. We will talk more about this in a moment.
Practice balance daily – If your balance is poor, start with static balancing. Stand on one foot. Stay up on your toes. Things like this. Once you’ve mastered this make your movements become dynamic. Stand on one leg and move the other one around. Stand on one leg and move your upper body. Put one foot behind the other and move. Use a balance board. Anything to keep the movement challenged.
Incorporate balance into your daily life – Get out of the habit of leaning on something to put on your pants or wash your feet in the shower. Center yourself on one leg, strengthen that core and go ahead and lift the other leg to put on those pants or wash that foot. We need to break those lazy habits now!
Learn to love those side leg lifts & kicks! – The muscles found on the outside of your hip, the Gluteus Medius, Gluteus Minimis and Tensor Fasciae Latae all help to stabilize your pelvis when standing on one leg. If they’re weak, they can’t fully support you and therefore need to be strengthened on a regular basis to keep your balance in check. You may want to check out Essentrics for an instructor in your area, videos or PBS classes on this fantastic type of exercise!
Get those feet out of shoes! – We have so many joints in our feet and they need to move individually in order to send feedback messages to the brain. If we are always held tight into our shoes, those joints get lazy and rely on our shoes to keep us upright. This spells disaster over time. Get all those joints working independently again.
Work through that old injury – Proprioception is compromised after an injury such as a sprained ankle or a hip replacement. The only way it can be regained is to work through it. Be gentle on it but move it, take it through every range of motion that is normal for that joint. Of course honor pain but don’t let the pain stop you. Find that place where you can relax and move it ‘just before’ the pain starts. Over time you will find it moves more and more and those feedback loops are reawakened.
Exercise regularly – People that exercise regularly have better balance. You can even increase balance if starting over age 75. The point is just do it!
For better understanding, I’d like to talk briefly (I could go on all day but I’ll spare you!) about proprioception. This is our body’s awareness of where we are in space. Proprioception is a feedback loop from receptors located in our muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia and joints that send messages to the brain about where we are. For every one message sent to the brain, up to 30 messages are sent out from the brain to the rest of the body to appropriately adapt to the necessary combination of movements. Think full glass verses empty glass. You lift a full glass of water to drink and the brain will need to determine the weight of the glass with the water to smoothly take it to your mouth. Once the glass is empty the weight has changed again and the brain needs to direct the glass back down to the table adjusting for a different weight. All this is easily and unconsciously accomplished through an efficient proprioception system.
One of the biggest feedback loops in regards to balance is in the ankles. This study relates the importance to enhanced sports performance and yet is equally important for all of us. The ankles and feet are our main contact with the floor and therefore need to be especially tuned in to avoid injury. Challenging them through various balance techniques is a key factor in keeping us upright, literally.
Change is inevitable. Let’s make that change in the positive direction rather than the reverse. Strengthen those muscles throughout your body so they can perform at their best, move in every conceivable direction to get those feedback loops functioning fully, get out of those shoes and bring that head up to focus on something rather than your own two feet. 🙂
To see this system at its finest while reading more about proprioception, check out this phenomenal video of a cheetah running. As you watch it, notice her head is upright, hardly moving while focusing. Enjoy the beauty of her musculature moving fluidly through space. My favorite part – notice how she uses her ankles, lands heel to toe and spreads her toes with each and every landing.
We may not be cheetahs but we sure can move fully and gracefully throughout our life by participating daily in the art and beauty of complete balance.