I find myself constantly striving for balance in my life. For me, this looks like the even distribution of work, life, family, household management, exercise and healthy eating. In my life, I find I’m constantly adjusting to keep everything running as smoothly as possible. For others, it might refer to your bank account, where there is an adjustment of funds to keep everything equally going in and out. The concept of balance, in any area, requires constant change and adapting to the environment. In the physical sense, it requires your body to be adapting to the physical demands of what you are doing at that moment. Your body needs to adjust to changes in balance much like your bank account, you adjust your spending when you have an unexpected expense, you adjust your position in space with an unexpected change to balance. It’s something that many of us are (fortunately) able to take for granted, but when it becomes a problem, we notice. Day to day, most of us will not experience any loss of balance. This will occur with higher demand activities such as hiking on a mountain or jumping over a stream, or maybe while carrying too many things up and down the stairs. As our bodies age, our balance starts to noticeably decline, and that is due to the changes in our muscles and nervous system. Balance problems can start as early as your 40’s, or sooner due to an injury, chronic illness or disease process.
So how exactly does balance work? Balance is a carefully coordinated activity that requires our muscles and nerves to carry the correct information up to our brain, for our brain to process this information and send the correct information back down to our legs to respond to changes in movement. The brain takes information from sensory receptors that provide information about what surface you are walking on - grass, hardwood floor, carpet, ice and any changes to that surface. Your brain then processes that information to know how you might need to adjust to walking on that surface, for example if it’s icy, you might notice that you bend your knees, take shuffling steps or start grabbing onto your car. The brain also receives information from your joint receptors which gives information about where you are in space, what joint is moving and what direction and how to adjust to that movement. The eyes and inner ear are also constantly providing information to your brain that adds to the information from your sensory system and muscles to allow you to remain stable while you are standing or moving. Balance while you are still is referred to as “static” balance, balance while moving is referred to as “dynamic” balance. The body has increased demands with dynamic tasks, they require more attention from more parts of our body.
Everything mentioned above happens in a split second, and much of the time without our conscious effort. Our bodies do not require us to think much about our balance, until we start to lose it. Changes in our sensation, decreased strength, pain, laxity in ligaments and vision changes all affect our balance. It’s important that, in the presence of a problem, we address the issue directly instead of avoiding it. So if you notice that every time you do a backward lunge you lose your balance, you shouldn’t avoid it, but rather work on it. Maintaining tree pose for two minutes will also require you to challenge yourself and pushing yourself toward the goal is how you can improve your nervous system. This is a concept known as “motor learning”, and follows similar principles to strength training. If it feels too easy, you probably aren’t doing enough to make gains.
Balance, coordination and strength are very closely linked. If your muscles are not strong enough to react to a loss in balance, you won’t be very good at catching yourself from falling. The same is true, that if your nervous system isn’t able to send the right signal to your muscles to react to a loss of balance, you won’t be able to recover from a fall. The good news is, a lot of exercises can be used to target a deficit in both of these areas. An example of this would be a lunge, it is a quick transition from single leg, to one leg forward (or backward or lateral) and then a return to the start position. This movement requires a combination of strength coordination and balance so that you don’t fall over.
Now, back to the aging concept, as the rest of our bodies begin to show signs of aging, our nerves are going through this process as well. This means that there will be a limit to how much recovery can occur in the nervous system. This is also true of any disease or disorder that affects your nerves and muscles. The concept holds true, however, that you still need to push your body between that too easy spot and when it’s too hard and you fall. Your body needs to learn from errors, but also be able to recover so it knows how to be successful.
So, what is the best way to target balance in an everyday setting? It doesn’t mean you have to do daily tree pose, but that wouldn’t be a bad option. A few exercises that I think are really good will incorporate a combination of leg strengthening and balance. These exercises can include, but are not limited to:
I’ll leave you with this, don’t wait until you start seeing changes in your balance to work on your balance. Doing these exercises in your 20’s, 30’s and 40’s are a great way to “up train” your neuromuscular system so that it is at a higher level then it otherwise would be. The sooner you can be proactive about training this system, the better “shape” it will be in, and so will you!
Physical Therapist, Mom, Wife, Friend, love for the great outdoors and physical activity
I am a passionate, adventure-seeking, fitness entrepreneur who loves having fun, my family and friends, a challenge, and creating a positive impact (to name a few :))!