When most people think of core components of exercise, the obvious elements of strength, conditioning, and flexibility usually come to mind. However, one often-overlooked attribute of exercise that carries over to almost all aspects of life is balance. You may think the elderly are the only ones who should be concerned about balance issues, but more and more information is coming out about how balance and stability exercises are beneficial for everyone.
The importance of this type of exercise comes from proprioception, or your body’s ability to interpret information about your position in space. Through a complex system of input from environmental factors, your brain is able to control which muscles to activate or deactivate to maintain a proper position or achieve a desired movement. These environmental factors include cues from the ground through the bottom of your feet, what you see, and even nerve responses from tiny crystals and hairs in your inner ear. The brain is able to process these cues and control muscle movements to allow simple things like bike riding, skiing, and standing on tip-toes, to more complex movements like handstand walking and one-legged squats in advanced athletes.
When the information from these cues becomes too complex, the brain is unable to control the muscles accordingly and you may lose your balance. However, through repetitive training and practice, you can train your brain and muscles to become more efficient at maintaining balance. Remember back to the first time you took the training wheels off your bike. If you were anything like me, it took a couple tries to get the hang of it, but once the brain had learned and adapted to a new balancing process, what once felt very difficult became routinely simple. Training to improve your balance will also translate to improved coordination, posture, stability, and even certain athletic skills. Watching a high-level gymnastic competition will put these skills on display, as these athletes make what seems like impossible body control look easy.
One great thing about balance training is you don’t need much time or fancy equipment to accomplish an effective workout. Yoga is a fantastic way to improve balance by challenging your body to hold what may feel like awkward, unstable positions for certain lengths of time. Core stability balls are a great replacement for your desk chair or the chair you sit on to watch television, they will help increase proprioception in all the smaller muscles surrounding the spine. Another simple way to work on balance is by trying to stand on one foot while doing regular daily activities. To try this, next time you brush your teeth try standing on just your right foot while you brush your upper teeth, and just your left foot while you brush your lower teeth. It’s harder than it sounds!
Working on balance and control while we’re young is a great way to help ourselves later on in life. As muscle mass starts to decline with age, things like slips and falls become more likely. With increased balance, coordination, and stabilization, these dangerous events can be avoided, so get started today!
Yours in Health, Dr. Alex
Project Wellness Company Madison, WI