Balance is the ability to control your body’s position, whether stationary (i.e. a complicated yoga pose or standing on top of a foam roller!) or while moving (e.g. walking down stairs). It is a complex skill that involves continuous interaction between
- the brain – your brain asks your body “where am I?”
- the eyes- they tell your brain how well you are aligned vertically and horizontally (using reference points such as trees, vertical walls).
- the fluid filled canals in the inner ear- which sense head movement, such as tilting to the side, telling you whether you are leaning or swaying.
- your muscles, tendons and ligaments – think glutes and especially legs, they sense how much tension is pulling on them, giving you clues about your position of your legs in space.
- your feet- senses the pressure of your body weight and therefore how your weight is positioned over your feet.
How it all worksYour vision tends to offer quick and easy information about your position in space. Most of the time this is what you rely on, ignoring the information from the inner ear and legs. When it is dark or there are lots of moving objects in sight, the brain relies on fast and accurate information from the inner ear and legs (rather than our eyes). But if the brain has not been paying much attention to these body parts, then it becomes slow at processing their information. And so your balance may be poor. When you have good balance, you have an improved ability to quickly adapt to changes in body position.You can adjust “on the fly” to unexpected variations. Your brain is able to continuously make quick decisions, in the background. Your brain is also able to send very fast signals to your muscles to control your balance, even when you are pre-occupied. Our balance is preprogrammed to decline after about 50 years of age (as part of the aging process). But we can slow, quite dramatically, many aspects of this age related decline.
Balance is very much a “use it or lose it” kind of thing.You can practice balance exercises in frequent little doses each day. For example each time you wash your hands at the sink you might do a simple step stance exercise. Or you might link your balance practice with turning on the kettle when you make a cup of tea. If you don’t practice, the coordination between the body parts listed above can deteriorate over time. This makes it harder for you to stay upright and predisposed to injury. Research with older adults that have experienced falls suggests that it takes around 50 hours of balance practice to substantially reduce their risk of falling again. That would amount to around 2 hours/ week for 6 months.
Types of balance exercises
- Positioning your feet- when you take the time to think about it, with each step you take there is a moment in time when you lift one foot off the ground. So many balance exercises will focus on using narrow foot positions, step stance foot positions and exercises involving standing on one foot only to improve your balance.
- Closing your eyes- as described above, the brain relies quite heavily on our vision to give information about our body’s position in space. It often ignores the information from our inner ear and legs. If we try to balance with our eyes closed we can force our brain to improve its ability to receive and use this information from other sources, not just our eyes.
- Turning your head- the vestibular system in the inner ear sends the brain fast and accurate information when we are moving our heads. If you play sports you will often be running and frequently turning your head so that your inner ear gets plenty of stimulation. If you don’t do many fast activities that involve head motion then your brain gets slower at integrating the barrage of information coming from the inner ear and vision simultaneously. So practicing head turning, is an important part of balance training.
- Distracting your brain-it goes without saying that your brain monitors, plans and co-ordinates your every move. It has to continuously make quick decisions and send lightning fast signals to our muscles to control our balance, even when we are pre-occupied with other tasks. For example, walking along a busy street, doing Christmas shopping with a friend. Our busy brain has to contend with walking, chatting to a friend, turning your head to look at window displays and prices. Here our balance is working efficiently in the background. To do this as an exercise you could be in a single leg balance position and count backwards in 7’s from 200. Alternatively balance in a single leg stance position and pat your head and rub your tummy.
- Reaching exercises- help us to explore and map our limits of stability. They then help to improve our muscle control and balance at those outer limits. Perform a reaching exercise with your feet in different positions. Or while standing on one leg, as in the drinking bird exercise below.
- Balancing on uneven surfaces-the surfaces we walk on, day in and day out are not always regular and flat. Think of a local park especially after heavy rain. Or walking down the side of a hill at sports stadium or even a steep driveway. A roller or a dura disc (air filled cushion) are perfect for these types balance exercises. See the photos below for examples.
- combinations of any of the above- of course you can increase the complexity of your balance training by combining any of the above elements or several into an exercise, eg single leg standing on a roller (as below).