Balance is something we don’t think much about after we learn it (as a child) or start to lose it (as a senior), but balance is crucial to healthy living. Personally, as part of my getting “too fit to fracture” protocol, I am focusing on maintaining my balance more and more. This is why and how.
Many of the people I coach are in their 50s and 60s (and a few beyond that) and I was recently diagnosed with osteoporosis so maintaining my balance (to prevent falls) has become a big focus for me lately. So, let’s take a look at how balance works, why we need it, and what we can do to maintain it.
If you pay attention to it, the world is always trying to tip you over in creative ways. The ground gets slippery when it snows or rains, it gets slick with mud or foreign substances, and it is often riddled with bumps and cracks, roots and branches.
Our old foe gravity constantly pulls on us, as if it is just waiting for us to lose focus and take a tumble. The fact that we manage to stay upright the majority of every day is actually pretty incredible.
For children, balance is something that requires practice. For adults, it’s something we only think about when we test its limits with daring feats. (Parkour anyone?) But the older we get, the more the world seems to challenge our balance. With that in mind, doesn’t it sound like a good idea to keep practicing it?
Before we get to that, let’s talk about how we actually balance.
How Do We Balance?
According to vestibular.org: “Balance is achieved and maintained by a complex set of sensorimotor control systems that include sensory input from vision (sight), proprioception (touch), and the vestibular system (motion, equilibrium, spatial orientation).”
- Vision: Visual input provides an overview of our physical surroundings.
- Proprioception: Nerves in our muscles and connective tissues relay information about our position in our physical surroundings.
- Vestibular System: Fluid in our inner ears acts as a kind of level, telling us where our bodies are in space.
If one of these systems is impaired, the other ones pick up the slack. But this becomes harder and harder as we age, as our vision gets weaker, and as our muscles atrophy, effectively weakening two of three systems that we rely on for good balance.
But this isn’t just a problem of age. Young people who want to enhance their athletic performance also need better balance. Let’s face it, balance is a large part of maintaining good, strong technique while skating, tumbling, running, jumping, cycling, throwing, and so on.
Balance has also been shown in studies to predict injuries in athletes. Balance practice and even balance training has been shown to reduce the risk of injuries in soccer and volleyball players.
Being truly still requires all of your 600+ muscles to be active at precisely the same time. This is tricky and requires practice. Watch a toddler when they are learning to walk – it takes concentration, perseverance and a lot of practice.
When you attempt to stand perfectly still, you likely feel a bunch of lurching motions happen all over your body. This is normal. This is simply your body making its best guess as to where you are in space, over and over again.
When your brain sends the message to stand still to the rest of your body, you might think your body would be 100% relaxed. But once again, the world is working against your best wishes. Wind, gravity, the gentle rotation of the earth, the swaying of the building you are in, impairments in your nervous system, and many other factors are forcing your body to react, rebalance, and re-relax. This should be mostly unnoticeable (unless, of course, the wind is high, the earth is off its axis, or you just got off the scrambler at the fair) and automatic, not requiring any thought or activity from you.
Now, if you aren’t able to stand still in the absence of these forces, then there is a problem with your nervous system. This can be either at the sensory level (your muscles are so tight that they can’t determine their position) or at the processing level (the information being transmitted through the spinal nerves is being degraded or blocked).
Don’t fret! There are things we can do about this. Let’s start with a couple tests.
Balance Test #1
Take off your shoes and socks and stand with your feet pointing straight ahead. Nice and parallel, with your feet hip-width apart.
How stable do you feel? Are you wobbling? Can you feel your body reacting and readjusting?
Next, close your eyes. Note if there are any changes between your feeling of stillness before and after closing your eyes.
If you felt like you were moving around a lot more with your eyes closed, this is why. Like I said earlier, your eyes are only a small part (one third) of the sensory input system that you need for balance. Your muscles, tendons, and bones should know where they are without looking. But the worse they communicate with the brain, the more you rely on your eyes to make corrections to your stability.
In order to get your body communicating properly, we need to stop forcing the eyes to do the work. We need to wake up the muscles, joints, and other proprioceptors. We’ll get into how to do that later. For now, let’s do another test.
Balance Test #2
Stand on one foot. Same as before, with your foot nice and straight. Don’t bend your knees, stick your arms out like a tightrope walker, or grab onto something for stability. Just balance as comfortably as you can on one foot. If you need to stick your arms out or grab onto something, go back and practice Test #1 a bit more before trying this one.
Again, once you are feeling solid while standing on one leg, close your eyes. How stable do you feel? Are you wobbling? Can you feel your body reacting and readjusting?
We all have some whole-body alignment problems (even me—shudder). For the most part, in this comfy and heeled-shoe wearing culture, our inability to balance is a result of our chronic failure to use the 33 joints in our feet, which then causes a cascade of issues. So, what can we do about this? I’m glad you asked.
Ways to Improve Your Balance
Since we just talked about them, let’s start with the feet.
1. Go Barefoot
In a study that examined the effect of ankle taping on balance, the researchers actually used barefooted people as the control group. This is because their balance is superior to those in shoes.
The reason we are so much better at balancing when we are barefoot is that we are no longer hiding (or blindfolding) the thousands of nerve endings on the bottom of our feet inside a cushioned shoe. Allowing them to actually feel their environment means those nerves can actually transmit all the valuable information they are gathering to our brain and contribute to our ability to balance.
Feet are indeed the foundation of most of our movement, but most of us have them immobilized, to some extent, for our entire adult lives. By simply going barefoot more often we can reconnect those nerves and relearn how to use that valuable balance input.
As we learned, balance isn’t all in your ears and eyes. You have to use your muscles to stabilize yourself. Sure, you don’t need to get super jacked or look like a balloon animal, but getting stronger certainly helps.
Strong muscles, strong bones, and better balance will make you more mobile and less likely to fall. The internet has some exercises to improve your strength and balance. Many of them are specifically for seniors, but, if you are not a senior, I am sure you can find ways to incorporate similar exercises into your routine.
The two tests we talked about earlier are great ways to practice your balance. If you are feeling adventurous, you could invest in a slackline but even just some 2×4 beams or random logs on the ground in a park will do to practice on. A few studies have shown that slacklining does, in fact, improve balance and postural control in female basketball players, as well as a broader range of individuals.
And I don’t just mean walking on them either. Bear crawl, inchworm, and crab walk are all great movements to try on your homemade trapeze.
4. Control Your Movement
I was putting my hiking shoes on this morning to walk to the beach and back. While I was getting ready, I practiced my balance by standing on one foot, slowly reaching down to get my shoe, slowly sliding it on my foot, and then keeping my foot in the air while slowly lacing the shoe up. I made sure to maintain control throughout the entire movement.
Don’t rush through your movements. Instead, move slowly, deliberately, and control the entire motion.
5. Single-Leg Exercise
This one is a no-brainer but still worth mentioning. Exercises like single-leg deadlifts, single-leg squats, pistols, and skater squats all demand that you employ your ability to balance. Some of those are pretty tricky but well worth the time and effort.
Plus, if you are also using some weights, then you are balancing under load, which means that you will strengthen the muscles and prepare the connective tissue to better balance in the future.
6. Practice Dynamic Balance
The kind of balance known as “dynamic balance” is most important to athletes. This is what gives them the ability to maintain posture, alignment, and control throughout a movement. To get better at this, you need to practice it.
In a study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, female athletes performed either a plyometrics program (jumping that focuses on maximal effort and quick reactions) or dynamic balancing and stability (using unstable surfaces). The researchers measured the effect of both protocols on strength, power, stability, and impact force and found that both programs improved each measure, but the balance program had a stronger effect on the dominant leg’s ability to land softly. The researchers wisely conclude that, “ A combination of PLYO and BAL training may further maximize the effectiveness of preseason training for female athletes.”
Other studies support the conclusion that a combination of plyometrics and balance training can improve sprint performance better than plyometrics alone.
7. Make It Part of Your Day
If you have been following me for a while, you probably saw this one coming. Dedicated exercise time is great, but finding ways to build movement practice into your day is the greatest. So, to improve your balance, try things like this:
- Stand on one leg while you brush your teeth.
- Tightrope walk along those dividers between parking spots.
- Walk along the outside of the sidewalk.
- Wash your feet while standing up in the shower.
- Put your socks and shoes on without sitting down.
- Instead of stepping over an obstacle, do a single leg hop over it.
- Look for every opportunity to invigorate those balancing muscles.
This one is a bit of a surprise but stick with me.
There are many reasons to work on getting a good night’s sleep and this is a good one.
The day after a night spent tossing and turning, your dynamic balance will be noticeably worse. Your ability to integrate sensorimotor function with visual input (two of the three ways we balance) decreases. Your postural stability gets wobbly after a single night of sleep deprivation and if you continue to sleep poorly, you impair postural control.
Yup, once again, there are many reasons to work on getting a good night’s sleep and this is another really good one.
9. Good Posture
Balance involves maintaining a stable, neutral spine no matter what you are doing. Posture is overlooked but it is important. If your head pokes out and your shoulders slump forward, you are out of position and likely will have a hard time balancing. Plus, you have just allowed about 11 pounds of skull and brain to be tugged on directly by gravity. Ouch!
So what did we learn?
The final point that I want to make is that balance is more than simply not falling over. Having good balance means that we are in control of our bodies in space: we can choose our footfall, our body position, and our alignment at all times. Not falling over is a good starting point, but just because you haven’t fallen over in a while (or ever) doesn’t mean you have impeccable balance.
Our bodies contain a wondrous and complex coordination system that, without looking, let’s us know where each cell, muscle, bone, and tendon is in space. Your brain has the remarkable ability to balance relative to yourself and relative to your environment. (Even while we are moving at high speeds through that environment.) This is the level of fitness that we need to train for and continue training for if we don’t want to lose that ability.
Balance work is truly a win-win-win situation. You win when you nurture your long-term future health. You win by decreasing your risk of falls and injuries. And you win as you improve your athletic performance through your strength and stability.
The best part? You can do it right now. Anytime, anywhere.