Balance – Something we all take for granted until we lose it momentarily; sometimes resulting in embarrassment, sometimes even injury.
The older you are, the more you appreciate what “good balance” represents. If you have ever had the misfortune of sustaining an ankle sprain, especially a more serious one, a secondary result (besides the pain, swelling, and inconvenience) would have been a loss of balance. You may have even required professional advice from a health and fitness professional. Chances are you heard the word proprioception being used with regards to your balance.
Balance VS Proprioception?
Balance is a component of proprioception. Proprioception is your bodies ability to know where your body part is in space. Specialized nerve endings (proprioceptors) in your muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, and skin provide the brain with information about your specific body position at any point of time. Proprioception also involves agility and coordination. In general and everyday life, proprioception and balance are performed subconsciously. i.e. As you’re walking you don’t think consciously about your balance – it just happens automatically.
Importantly, proprioception and balance can be improved as a skill. Similarly, they have also the ability to deteriorate if you don’t use or challenge this system regularly.
I have trained elite level gymnasts who after three years of retirement, had lost their amazing sense of proprioception and balance. They did, however, quickly advance their “balance’ much quicker than an average individual. Imagine you haven’t ridden a bike for five years, then you jump back on a mountain bike for an “off-road adventure”. You might be a little bit shaky, to begin with, but you would quickly remember that skill through “balance memory”.
Why Is Good Balance Important?
Good balance is important for many reasons; however, your age will often dictate the level of importance you place on balance.
As a child, you’re always looking for a wooden post or a thin ledge upon which to practice your balance when walking along the street. Balance comes naturally, but this is often because it is regularly getting challenged.
As an adult, however, unless you are attending a gym which has specific equipment to train your balance or you perform functional movements (e.g. Yoga/Tai chi) which involve regular stresses for balance, the adage “Use it or lose it” comes into play. Research has shown that postural control decreases with age and poor balance is strongly associated with an increased risk of falls and poor mobility.
The good news is that improving your balance is possible, no matter what your age. A study published in the Journal of Gerontology reported that a group of subjects aged 59 – 87 years old showed significant improvements in balance following a 12-week yoga program. Importantly older people who perform well in balance and mobility tests decrease the risk of falling by 50% compared to people with poor balance. Sustaining a fractured wrist or fractured hip is not only costly, it’s also dramatically impacting on your immediate lifestyle.
Improved Balance = Improved Performance
Regardless of your age, who doesn’t want to perform better – whether it is for sport or lifestyle. Improving your proprioception, will enhance your balance & improve your stability. It will assist in better agility so you can quickly change direction when necessary. It will facilitate finely-tuned coordination skills so you can perform physical activities accurately and consistently. If you watch any high-level athlete perform, one of the frequent observations you often hear is how “balanced’ they are – even in explosive and power sports such as football and basketball. Improving your balance will definitely assist in taking your “game” to a higher level.
Don’t Neglect The Rehab
I lost count of the times that people presented with ankle sprains who reported that they had previously sprained their ankle. Commonly they had consulted a Health & Fitness Professional and attended a few sessions when the ankle was in acute stage – painful, swollen and with limited mobility. Once they were active again, no further treatment was obtained. Unfortunately, this meant that the balance and proprioception system was far from back to normal! Research has shown that basketball players with increased postural sway are 7 times more likely to be injured. Stand on 1 leg, then close your eyes. Postural sway is the movement that occurs in an attempt to maintain your balance.
Proprioception exercises reduce the risk of re-injury by teaching the body to react appropriately to sudden changes in the environment. But as discussed above, most people don’t follow through with their balance program for long enough to get back to 100%.
Prevention Is Easier (And Less Painful!) Than The Cure
Rehabilitation programs that incorporate at least 6 weeks of balance training have been shown to reduce the risk of recurrence ankle sprain. Studies have shown that a balance training program can reduce the risk of re-injury in a previously injured ankle to the same level as healthy ankles.
Good balance, however, is not just about strong ankles. Research has shown that weakness in the hip abductors muscles can be present several years after an ankle sprain. Not only does weakness in the hip abductor muscles increase the likelihood of a further sprain, a loss of core/pelvic stability can ensue, leading to other lower limb problems.
If You Are Not Assessing, You’re Just Guessing
As with any type of health and fitness program, if you want to get results quicker and easier, a thorough assessment will ensure that you know exactly what you need. Why waste time doing exercises that you don’t need.
One Percent Change incorporates a number of key tests that provide important information about your balance and areas of the body that can hinder or limit your balance.
The single leg balance and single leg squat tests will quickly reveal your current “functional” balance. Additional tests such as ankle flexibility and hip muscle strength can also reveal if you need to be given some specific exercises to improve your balance.
Single Leg Squat Test
Specific testing such as that used by One Percent Change will ensure that your Health & Fitness Professional can structure your individual program to your needs. Even if you are focussed on weight loss, the addition of some simple balance exercises will help prevent injuries and enhance your performance in general day-to-day activities.
And the good news is that improving your balance is really easy and some of the exercises are great fun!
Standing on 1 leg and moving your opposite leg forwards, sideways & backwards is a simple yet challenging task for people with poor balance. My personal favorite for an “advanced balance task” is to stand in front of a wall on 1 leg. Throw a tennis ball into the wall with 1 hand then catch with the other. i.e. Left-hand throws into the wall, right-hand catch. Right-hand throws into the wall, left-hand catch. Repeat 20 times.
As an added bonus Click here to download a Free Balance Program with fun and challenging balance exercises you can perform.