FINDING THE RIGHT BALANCE
“Ashes, ashes! We all fall down!” This popular children’s game of “Ring around the Rosey” was fun as a child. As an adult, falling down can be embarrassing and sometimes serious. Falling is a common hazard, especially for older people. In 2010, 13 million people reported being injured in a fall. Falls are often caused by simple trips on the sidewalk or on the stairs at home. Balance training is the foundation to all forms of exercise. Balance is an essential part of our everyday movements. It is difficult to understand how balance training has been a forgotten area of focus in total fitness.
To help maintain balance and stability our bodies use three internal control systems. These three centers include our eyes, our ears, and our nervous system. All of us, including the best athletes in the world, rely on these three systems working together to supply information from our surroundings and bodies to our brain.
The eyes are one of the most important sources of information for our brain. Information on subtle changes in terrain and upcoming obstacles allows our brain to make appropriate adjustments in our body’s posture and muscle tone and allow us to maintain perfect balance and rhythm. Just knowing which way is up and which way is down is something our eyes supply to our brain every second they are open. If you want to see how important your visual system is to balance, try standing on one leg for 30 seconds. Now close your eyes. Notice how much harder it gets?
The inner ear has fluid deep inside that acts like a level used in construction. When our head moves from side to side, so does the fluid. This shift in fluid stimulates tiny hairs found in the ear, which in turn tell our brain important information on the position and orientation of our head with respect to the ground. Once again, we are getting more vital information from our body, which the brain uses to help maintain good balance. This is called your vestibular system. To see how important your inner ear is to overall balance, try standing on one leg again, but this time tilt your head from side to side. Orientation becomes a challenge once again. If you have ever experienced vertigo or dizziness from an inner ear infection, this system has been temporarily shut down or the brain is getting poor information due to inflammation in the inner ear. This is why many athletes benefit from stabilizing their head during their sport (golf is an example) and why a championship boxer can knock you off your feet with a sudden punch to the head.
The nervous system is the last system our body uses to maintain balance. Place your hand behind your back. Now, do you know that your hand is behind your back? Of course you do! You don’t have to look or use a mirror to know that your hand is behind your back—you can feel it. The joints in your hands and fingers all have tiny nerve endings and special receptors called proprioceptors that act as your body’s own internal GPS system. We know our hand is behind our back because those proprioceptors are telling our brain the exact position and orientation of our body parts every millisecond of our life. It is this feel or kinesthetic awareness that allows us to control balance, timing, rhythm, and feel. The bad news is that these receptors are very susceptible to damage with injury or disuse. For example, you might notice that is was harder for you to stand on one leg versus the other. This is potentially due to an old sprained ankle or damaged knee that also has sustained damage to the proprioceptors in that area. The good news is these receptors can easily be retrained or repaired with proper exercises.
Proprioceptive exercises are good retraining exercises for those of us who have sustained damage or injury to our bodies. These exercises involve performing a familiar exercise in an unstable environment, like a lunge onto a balance pad instead of a stable floor or a horizontal chop while sitting on a stability ball with only one leg on the ground. Unstable environments can be created with any of the following training tools: stability balls, foam rollers, balance pads, wobble boards, Bosu Balance Trainers, and disc pillows. I like to alternate devices in my training sessions to challenge all three balance centers. I challenge you to add a component of balance to your routine this month. Please contact me if you would like personal training with proprioceptive exercises or any of your fitness related goals. Krista.Williams.email@example.com or (707) 322-2271. Have fun, and try not to fall!