Bringing Balance to Your Exercise Routine
Madison, Wisconsin – What do you think of when you hear the word balance? Balance can be a noun - to be in a state of equilibrium in body, mind or emotionally. Balance can also be a verb – to bring the body back to a state of equilibrium. What you may not think of is how significantly balance issues can affect our well being.
Whether it is the simple act of walking out the front door, to something more complex like playing a favorite sport, the ability to maintain our balance can directly impact our activities.
And while balance exercises may not seem like a high priority when you're at the gym, strengthening your balance can have positive benefits that last a lifetime.
The Biology of Balance
In our bodies, balance can be static or dynamic. Static balance involves maintaining your position while staying still. Dynamic balance is your balance in motion - walking across an uneven lawn, performing a tennis serve, running after a toddler, negotiating stairs, staying on your feet when tripping on the dog's toy. Through a combination of dynamic and static balance, we maintain our center of gravity whether we're standing, or actively engaged in an activity like walking or something more complex like riding a bike.
Anyone new to yoga who has tried holding a tree pose (a position that involves standing on one leg) knows that keeping your balance even for a short period of time can be challenging. Essentially, there are three systems that have to work together to provide the brain with information about where our bodies are in space.
The Three Systems of Balance
These systems give information about our movement and our relationship to objects. They help us decide how high we need to step up or over an object and how our joints and body are aligned. These three components of balance are the visual system, the vestibular system and our proprioceptive ability.
- The visual system involves the brain taking in information from the eyes regarding our relationship to objects and the depth of the objects. Is the object moving, how fast? How far away am I?
- The vestibular system is the complex inner ear system that gives information to the brain about where we are in relation to gravity, our motion, spatial orientation and equilibrium.
- Proprioception is information from receptors in our muscles, joints and skin that are sensitive to stretch and touch. They convey information to the brain that helps you know where you are in space. The ankles for example provide very important proprioceptive information about the quality of the surface we are standing on. Is it firm, slippery, uneven?
The information our brain receives from these three sources creates a "feedback loop" that helps our brain keep our body in balance. The brain takes the information in and helps the body compensate when we do things like lose our balance or walk on an uneven surface. But there are things that can interfere with that feedback loop and make it difficult for our body to respond like certain diseases, medications, or even an outdated eye glass prescription. Injures such as ankle sprains and muscle imbalances can also interfere with balance and make us more susceptible to injury, or affect our athletic ability.
Keeping the Body in Balance
Some people may feel like they're naturally clumsy, but there may be an underlying issue that's affecting your ability to stay on your feet. If you have a history of falls or feel like you might have some balance issues, talking with your doctor is a good first step. Your doctor may help you evaluate the medications you are on, look at when your vision was last tested and help with any health conditions that need addressing. Your doctor might also recommend a visit to a balance clinic to evaluate what type of exercises you might need.
No matter your age, however, exercises can help you strengthen your muscles and improve your balance and are an important addition to any exercise regimine.
Exercises to Improve Static Balance
Static balance exercises can be more than just standing on one foot. If you are at all concerned about risk for falling, practice next to a wall, a countertop or something stable to use for balance help. Start by exploring how long you can stand on one leg in good posture. If you can easily stand for 20-30 seconds you can start to add some variables. In general, you can progress these exercises from double leg/normal stance, to feet close together, to single leg stance.
- Close your eyes, start with standing on two feet, then practice single foot stance. The closer your feet are together the more the challenge.
- Try standing with your feet in tandem (one foot behind the other like standing on a tightrope). Eyes open progressing to eyes closed.
- Stand on one foot and move just your eyes to look right and left. Move your whole head to look right and left. Move your head right and left but keep your eyes facing straight forward.
- Stand on a unstable surface such as a foam pad, pillow, wobble board or roll up a towel and tape it so it stays in a roll
Exercises to Improve Dynamic Balance
Being able to stand on one leg is a nice test of balance, but we really need our ability to balance as we move dynamically throughout our day. Static balance is a great place to start a training program and gives us foundation to build on. Here are some ideas to incorporate into your exercise program. Again, many of these exercises should be started using a double leg stance then you will progress to a stance with feet close together and finally to single-leg stance.
- Add limb movement to your static exercises. Move your arms around at different angles. Try reaching to touch your shins or the floor, bending at the hips, knees and ankles. Put a little water in a sealable jug and shake it with small fast movements at different angles around your body. If you are standing on one leg, reach the other leg out at different angles.
- Walk or jog backwards
- Find a partner or a sturdy wall and practice throwing and catching. You can use a softer foam or vinyl ball, a basketball or a medicine ball (a weighted ball). You can also bounce a ball on the floor, bouncing at different angles around you.
- Walk or jog forward or backwards taking two steps and stopping to balance on the third footfall (this will allow you to alternate which leg you are balancing on). You can take this same step- step-balance pattern and progress it to a zig zag motion.
- Add leg strengtheners such as forward, backward and sideways lunges to your program. You can start with a small step each direction and gradually make your step bigger. If you are not familiar with a lunge it is best to have someone knowledgeable teach you good form.
And, perhaps the most important element of all to help improve your balance – get up and get moving. Moving around, in different directions and using your limbs helps keep tissues elastic and healthy. Try new activities to challenge your body to learn new patterns and new ways of moving, which can also help your mind learn to focus.
Date Published: 11/13/2015