Get Some Balance Into Your Life
Balance – The ability to maintain posture if your centre of gravity is perturbed.
Balance is not a magic skill that you either have or don`t have. Rather it is a changeable state to the capacity your body has as it interacts with the physical world around it. Your mood, energy levels, clothing, footwear and the environment will all influence your ability to react to both planned and unplanned events that require you to control your body either to accomplish a task, for example standing on one leg in an exercise class or to react if you are standing on a bus that has to break unexpectedly.
People will often state “my balance is terrible”, but what is balance?
Let’s look at what is commonly thought to contribute to good balance: The central nervous system is the map that covers your entire body and reports directly to your brain. It processes an enormous amount of information from your sight, hearing and touch amongst other senses to allow your brain to decide what signals, and of what strength, are needed to be sent all around body to allow you to physically navigate the world around you. The signals to allow you to walk over rough ground need to be different to the ones required to walk over smooth tarmac, the signals to stroll through a park on your own are different to the ones when you are being jostled if you are part of a large crowd at an event.
The vestibular system includes parts of the inner ear and the brain and provides and processes sensory information about the position of our body as gravity acts against it and how to mover in the physical space it occupies, this is often referred to as proprioception.
Injury, illness and some aspects of the ageing process can impair the systems function and balance can be affected.
In the presence of illness or injury to any of the systems that influence and control balance medical support is vital and a referral to the most appropriate can clinician can make an enormous difference to a person’s ability to achieve the best level of functional balance possible. So, Physiotherapists may be able to help with the rehabilitation of strength, mobility and function and Occupational Therapists may be able to help with finding different ways of achieving function, sometimes through the use of home adaptations and aids.
However let’s assume a person is not currently affected by illness or injury that directly affects their balance yet they still want to improve it?
I teach Pilates and in my classes and one to one work I focus heavily on standing exercises, I can tell that some clients dread the “balance” work and one of the main points I try and get across to them is the need to lose their inhibitions and any embarrassment when they are wobbling on one leg! Standing like a statue on leg is arguably of little benefit and the “wobbling” is actually the very stimulation required to stimulate the adaptive process that your body exhibits whenever you present it with a regular challenge that is slightly outside its present level of capacity.
Finding your own Balance Baseline
So what is your own balance baseline? We all have a certain physical potential, we can`t all become elite athletes [who are generally born and not made]! However, we can all work towards our own potential by being physically active. The good news is balance can be developed as a by product of being generally fit and for some people requires no specific work.
If you walk for fitness, if you run or engage in active sport or exercise in a gym you will be stimulating the processes necessary for supporting the systems that contribute to good balance.
Here though are some simple balance challenges you might choose to try. Obviously, I have no idea of your current health or how appropriate or not it may be for you to try these, you will have to assume the responsibility for deciding that. And it should go without saying [but I will say it nonetheless] you must satisfy yourself you have chosen a safe and appropriate place to do this, a clear and level floor with something sturdy to hold onto if you require it.
From a standing position with feet almost touching raise the heel of one foot from the floor and then raise the rest of the foot until it is about 6 inches from the floor. What else did you have to do to achieve that? Did you have to shift your body weight first? If so by how much, a little is acceptable, but you should have been able to absorb that movement with the minimum of compensatory movement from your trunk, So now you are on one leg how is it going? Can you get to 10 seconds without too much effort? How well are you standing on your supporting leg, have you had to raise the hip of the floating leg in an effort to compensate? Still standing strong at 20 seconds? What happens if you close your eyes?
What happens when you return your foot to the floor, does everything feel ok or can you feel the relief in your working muscles now they can relax?
Balance is a skill, and like most skills people will have very different levels of innate ability that will influence how good their balance can be. Add to this not only the impact of illness and injury but also of a sedentary lifestyle and some people may never get anywhere near to developing their true balance potential.
In conclusion then here are some key messages:
Be active – Walking is a series of one leg balances, it`s just that we don`t realise it.
Cycling constantly relies on all the systems within your body to make adjustments to maintain balance on two wheels and develops great leg strength.
Swimming whilst not weight bearing actually requires activation of the very systems that are responsible for maintaining balance on dry land.
Gym based exercise, specifically strength training, increases bone density and the resilience and functional capacity of connective tissue and can give people increased confidence as their workout results increase.
we all have the ability to balance, it`s just that some people will be blessed with a bit more natural feeling for it so don`t be too hard on yourself if you can`t balance as well as someone else. We also know that illness and injury can limit our balance capacity. But, as long as we are realistic in our expectations and are patient, most people can make improvements in balance even in the presence of illness and injury.
For the majority of people though the message is if you are not very active then think about changing that, if you currently do nothing or very little in terms of physically activity or exercise then anything is a good idea. And for those who are active? Don`t stop!