Most of us have marveled at an athlete’s ability to stay upright after being hit, balance on a narrow beam, or stick a landing. Yet we take our own use of balance for granted, even though we rely on this skill in every movement that we make: stretching for a forehand in tennis, removing a child from the car seat, or simply walking. Balance, as Mr. Miyagi reminded the Karate Kid, is good.
It is often not until we lose balance – whether through illness, injury, or age – that we realize how important it is. Work with stroke victims, people with ankle sprains, and seniors who are prone to falling has shown that the brain and muscles can be retrained to create new movement patterns and regain lost physical skills. Rehabilitation techniques tell us how we can improve the brain-muscle connection that is critical to maintaining good balance throughout our lives.
Balance involves a complex interaction of information from our senses, strength from our muscles, and feedback from tiny receptors in our joints and muscles. Together, they enable us to keep our trunk – the body’s center of gravity – aligned over our feet as we move. This sense of where our bodies are in space (often referred to as proprioception) can be improved by adding some simple exercises to a home workout routine.
Testing your balance
1. Whenever you balance, you want to be in an ”athletic stance” with your stomach drawn in, chest aligned over thighs, and neck and shoulders in neutral, relaxed positions.
2. Stand on one foot for 10 seconds. Repeat on the other foot. Now try the same thing with your eyes closed and you will understand how much we rely on our senses to maintain balance.
3. Performing the same test on an uneven surface such as a foam pad allows you to feel the muscles of your lower leg adjusting to feedback from the body’s proprioceptors. You can purchase foam pads or half rollers online (check out performbetter.com for an array of balance-training products) or fashion your own from scraps like the egg-carton-shaped foam used for packing boxes. When done on these surfaces with limited stability, the following exercises will improve your leg muscle strength and facilitate the connections between your brain and muscles.
Balance and movement
Because balance is a dynamic process – a colleague implores the athletes we work with to think of running fast as ”controlled falling forward” – these exercises must have a component of movement.
4. Place your foam pad 12 inches in front of your right foot, step onto it with that foot and raise the other. Hold for a five count. As you perform 8-10 repetitions, you may find your confidence growing and you can attempt to lengthen the distance of your step to the foam. Try repeating the exercise, only this time rely on your left leg. Don’t be surprised if one side is easier than the other.
5. You can work another plane of movement by placing the foam 12 inches first to your right and then to your left and stepping laterally to balance. As with your forward movement, hold each repetition for a five count and perform 8-10 times on each side.
6. The final plane of movement involves rotation and is often the space where we are most prone to injury. Place your foam 12 inches behind your right foot at a 45-degree angle to your right heel. Rotate your body 135 degrees to the right by turning on your left foot, step onto the foam with your right foot and hold for a five count. Do this for 8-10 repetitions, then set up the foam behind your left foot and repeat the exercise on the left side.
All of these movements can be completed with a small jump to the unstable surface to increase the neuromuscular demand of the exercise. Jumping makes the move more difficult, and will force you to stabilize your trunk to keep your center of gravity aligned over the supporting foot. If you choose to try them, start with small jumps in each of the three planes of movement described above and perform 4-6 repetitions with a five count hold.
Balance and the home workout
Another way to spice up your home workout is to perform some of your old standard exercises while challenging your balance at the same time.
7. Perform squats or overhead presses while standing on one leg. In addition to improving balance, core stability, and strength, these exercises are joint-friendly in that they allow you to work with lighter weights and still increase the intensity of the workload.
8. Try doing these exercises on foam or a BOSU trainer (a stability ball with a flat bottom) and you will understand what total body training is all about.
It is never too soon to start training to improve balance. We begin losing muscular strength in our late 20s and the process accelerates as we enter our 50s and 60s. While some age-associated muscle loss is inevitable, older individuals who remain physically active lose less strength and function than their sedentary counterparts.
Strength training with a focus on improving balance not only helps increase muscle mass, it helps keep the connection
between nerves and muscle more efficient. This has a positive effect on how quickly and how well we are able to walk and climb stairs. When all the news about our brains and bodies tends to focus on what we are losing as we age, it’s nice to know there are some simple home exercises we can do to enhance the way our brain and muscles work to improve our quality of life.[fb_button]