Balance is one of those essential skills that enhances all of our movements. It may sound a bit New Age-y but it is true: the ability to balance is within us all. You just need to find it. Like most things, if you don’t use this skill, you will lose it. As we age we tend to move less, more slowly and limit our range of motion, thus inadequately taxing our balance systems. Why is this a big deal? We evolved to use our balance systems every day in multiple ways; jumping, climbing, running, hiding, playing…. Our modern sedentary lifestyle has reduced these movements, opening us up for imbalance injuries. Lack of good balance can ultimately lead to a premature death. Falls are the leading cause of fatal injuries for Americans over the age of 65. Frequently, an older person will lose their balance, fall and break a hip. Hip fracture in a senior citizen is akin to a death sentence. The complications that follow lead to long-term care, lack of independence and early mortality. There are many things one can do to prevent or lessen the likelihood of a fall-related injury. Balance exercises and training are perhaps the most important components for prevention but many take it to an extreme. Grandma does not need to stand on a physio ball (neither do you) unless she is preparing for the circus. Almost any type of movement training can have added ‘balance value’ if done properly. Effective balance training should look nothing like acrobatic stunts.
The two most common examples of everyday balance are:
- Walking – During the gait cycle you will spend almost 50% of your time on one leg
- Standing up from the seated position – The act of getting up requires complex coordination within the neurophysiological systems to move and keep you upright.
There are several types of balance: stable, unstable (lack of stability in any state) metastable (temporary stability) and multistable (stable in a variety of states) – (Siff, 2000). Long term stability is somewhat of a misconception. The body is constantly correcting its physiology to overshoot and undershoot certain marks in order to find stability in movement and static postures. Tiny unconscious calibrations are being made all the time to refine and calibrate homeostatic stability. Balance is comprised of and coordinated by the vestibular system, vision, proprioception, neuromuscular alignment, and respiration. It is a fundamental requirement for athletic performance and activities of daily living. “Balance can be considered as an ability of an individual to control either static or dynamic equilibrium while maintaining a stable position….Individuals with good balance are able to adequately and continuously control their body position or center of mass over the base of support (Knudson, 2007).”
There are three major systems in the body that maintain control and balance:
Vestibular Apparatus – The vestibular system is located in the inner ear. It detects motion and sends impulses to the brain to correct movement and calibration.
Visual System – Sensory receptors in the eyes provide visual cues identifying how a person is oriented relative to other objects. Vision plays a crucial role in integrating the vestibular apparatus. It is easy to demonstrate. Try standing on one leg with your eyes closed and then open. Which is harder?
Proprioceptors – These are specialized receptors in the skin, joints, muscles and ligaments that help to detect spatial awareness. This ‘sixth sense’ continually communicates to the brain about position, location, orientation and movement of the body.
During all movement, your brain is bombarded by millions of ultra fast messages from your joints relaying their current positions. Your brain takes this data and delivers it to the surrounding stabilizing muscles and soft tissues to keep you upright. Muscles are stupid, bones even more so. Your body does not know from individual muscles, it only knows movement patterns. These patterns literally have millions of interactions every second that preserve our equilibrium and keep us from falling on our butts. These interactions have the potential for wayward programming. They can become compensations for stabilization, faulty movement patterns, inefficient movements or a combination of all of them. Balance training (also called neuromuscular adaptation training) serves a multilayered purpose:
1- Helps prevent injury
2- Teaches or re-teaches structural and functional efficiency
3- Provides a good calorie burning modality due to the global neural demand
4- Enhances everyday movement
5- Strengthens the core musculature and increases its efficiency
6- Improves your posture and neuromuscular spinal stabilizers.
NOTE: If you are chasing a strength goal it behooves you to primarily train on stable surfaces. The evidence is clear. One can produce much greater power on a stable vs. unstable surface. Greater neuromuscular demand and overall muscular activity are generated with stable surface training.
Subjects strengthened on stable surfaces performed significantly better in athletic measures than subject doing the same exercises on inflated rubber disks Cressey, et al (2007) concluded “Using inflatable rubber disks attenuates performance improvements in athlete.”
“Unstable devices account for 44% less muscle activity and 70% less muscle force output than stable surfaces.” (Behm 2002)
In a fully integrated training program, there is little need to train balance in isolation as one may do for strength or endurance. Balance is resultant and a by-product of a complete program which includes power, agility, speed, endurance and strength. Nevertheless many individuals train with narrow specificity in mind (machine based circuit training or cycling) and might do well to incorporate a little multi–planer balance work into their program.
If we all moved as much as our great ancestors, we would not have as many dysfunctions, weight problems, and balance issues. Since we don’t, it is important to counteract the modern world’s negative forces by training our bodies to use its primal framework. Most of the surfaces we live on are flat and have little irregularity. Because our bodies crave change and movement, this homogeneous motion-starved environment breeds joint degradation, arthritis, and overall dysfunction. Think about a wear pattern on a carpet between the den and the kitchen. If you walk the same route every day for years, eventually you’ll wear down the carpet in a noticeable path. Walking on flat hard surfaces with little deviation may cause our joints to develop wear just like the carpet. I’m grateful I don’t reside in the jungle (barefoot and barely clothed) but that lifestyle utilizes the body the way it has evolved, over the last 2 million years. Modern hunter gathers suffer from a lot less disease and dysfunction than their urban counterparts. Our bodies should be challenged on a regular basis in all three planes of motion; frontal, sagittal and transverse, with our balance and proprioceptive systems working on high. Below are some easy things you can do:
- Stand on one leg while brushing your teeth
- Walk on uneven surfaces often (beach, hiking etc)
- Utilize balance tools in your workouts (Bosu, physio ball, wobble board etc)
- Use cardio machines like the step-mill or elliptical without holding on
- Practice a martial art
- Practice yoga
- Play a sport on a regular basis (fishing and darts are not sports!)
- Stand on the subway without holding on (be careful!)
- Reduce your base of support (narrow leg stance)
- Take away some visual input (close eyes, darker room etc)
- Dance – seriously go out and shake your booty!
- Walk on your heels or toes or one foot in front of the other
NOTE: If you cannot adequately stabilize yourself while standing or moving, then there is little benefit to be gained by training on an unstable surface. Work on building multistable skills on flat unmoving surfaces before you progress to unstable environments.
Any exercise you do can be modified to increase the stability/balance quotient. Heck, you can even compromise your balance while sitting at your desk. Close your eyes, lift one foot off the floor, and back off the support, then raise the opposite arm straight up and straighten the other down, like an air traffic controller. Now switch the arm and foot positions. It may feel dorky but it is indeed balance work coupled with shoulder mobility and core stabilization. The next time you are waiting for an elevator or in one, stand on one leg and turn your head to the left and right (this affects the vestibular system and makes balance much harder). Perhaps you can go the park and kick off your shoes and see if you can walk heel to toe in a straight line forward and backward. And if you are a little more advanced you can take an uneven grip or put an asymmetrical load on a barbell while performing a movement. Only your imagination and the danger you are willing to risk are your limits.
Back in the 90’s, my trainer friends and I threw caution to the wind (among other things) and did some kooky balance-based exercises: medicine ball catch while standing on a physio ball; weighted deadlifts and squats kneeling and standing on a ball; 1 arm pushups on a ball etc… Most of us got older and wiser and moved away from such circus feats. Not only are the benefits minuscule and questionable these movements are stupid and dangerous. Unfortunately, people are still doing this nonsense. There are many more videos than I thought possible of people doing moronic things in the name of balance exercises. What could go wrong??by