Written by our trainer Susan Brano
Something to Think About, and then Do is a series of articles to inform you about training and exercise concepts and to provide ways of bringing them into your daily life. So far, you’ve read about core, posture, glute amnesia, cardio fitness, and hydration.
Our sixth installment is about Balance.
Balance is that subtle skill that keeps us from falling. We all have it, to varying degrees, and it is at work all the time. If you’re sitting on a chair or on a Bosu ball, standing on one foot or two, balance is keeping you up upright. If you’re walking, running, skiing, climbing stairs, gardening, bending over to tie your shoes, making your way through an obstacle course…you get the picture, it’s always at play.
The ability to maintain balance is imperative for avoiding injury, improving physical fitness and improving athletic ability. To make all that possible, the nervous system is continually processing input from many sources. Three that are germane to our discussion include visual cues, proprioception and neuromuscular control.
For visual cues, the most obvious one is having your eyes open or closed, an affect that can easily be tested: Stand on one or two feet with your eyes open. Now close your eyes. Losing visual input requires the nervous system to adjust. The speed of that adjustment will vary based on conditioning. Another visual cue that can affect your balance is your point of focus. When you are learning to balance on one foot or on a Bosu, your eyes may wander. This would create extraneous visual input. Focusing on a single object limits the input and helps you balance.
Proprioception, which happens to be one of my favorite words, is awareness of the location of the body in space, i.e., knowing the location of your head, hands, arms, legs, feet, etc., based on input from various receptors. This input is an important component of maintaining balance. Lastly, neuromuscular control plays a primary role in balancing. Like any physical activity, balance is dependent the right muscle(s) being activated at the right time. As you’ve learned in previous articles (core, posture, glute amnesia), using the right muscles can improve mobility and skill, eliminate common aches (e.g., low back pain) and help avoid injury. Likewise, with balance. As you walk, if you are slouching because your core muscles are taking the day off, not only will your gait be affected but your balance will, too, possibly resulting in a trip or a fall. Training your body to improve balance will reinforce your other training and could awaken muscles you didn’t know you had. That’s a good thing! As they awaken and get stronger and learn how to work together, you’ll see benefits in your daily life and in all levels of physical activity.
There are many things you can do at home to improve your balance. Start by standing on one foot but first, to make sure your using the right muscles, check your posture (engage your core, shoulders down and back, neutral pelvis (no excessive arch in your back). Ok, now raise one foot off the floor and squeeze the standing glutes. As you master static balance, challenge yourself by adding some motion. The one that many of my clients have heard from me is brushing your teeth while standing on one foot. That’s a good one because it’s something you do at least twice a day (right?) so you have lots of opportunity practice. You can add a calf raise or leg swing to amp it up. A couple other moves you can do at home include single leg squat and warrior 3 pose (hinge at the hip, neutral back, torso forward, straight arms forward, one leg back).
As a general rule, to progress your balance training, go from 2 feet on the floor to one; from static to dynamic (e.g., swing a leg, toss a ball, touch the floor, hop); change the foundation from fixed (floor) to standing on various pieces of equipment, like that which you may have had the pleasure to use at 5050: black sponge pad, balance disk, Bosu with either the black or blue side up, and our latest addition, the boogie board.
Balancing is fun and very satisfying.
May the force be with you.