Did you know…
Balance, put simply, is the ability to maintain your center of gravity. It involves strength & stability of the foot, ankle and trunk as well as input from the eyes (visual), inner ear (vestibular system), joints and muscles (proprioceptors). All these systems work together to help us stay upright.
The visual system is really important when it comes to maintaining balance, which is why you can feel wobbly when you get up to go the bathroom in the dark and why your balance can change depending on where you focus your eyes. The vestibular system sends signals to the brain that is related to our head position, orientation in space, and motion. If the vestibular system is “off”, you may feel dizzy and unable to maintain balance. This system isn’t as efficient when we get older explaining why I no longer enjoy roller coasters or curvy roads!
Age-related changes in muscle mass, motor neurons, the vestibular system, eyesight, and even blood pressure can result in balance difficulties, thus leading to an increase in falls in older populations. However, just because these changes happen naturally doesn’t mean we can’t slow the process and make improvements.
Reasons to include balance training in your fitness regimen include:
Balance training, like all aspects of fitness, requires consistency. Traditional strength training and cardio programs are useful for improving several of the factors needed for good balance but may not include enough specific balance training to ensure the best results. So, in addition to consistent strength training for the core and lower body in particular, specific balance training should be done 3 or more times per week.
Balance training may include training with eyes closed (visual aspect), using unstable surfaces like a foam pad or Bosu (proprioception and core stability), using gaze stabilization exercises (vestibular system), and dynamic movement including single leg or split stance exercises.
One quick self-check is to stand with your feet close together and close your eyes. Make sure you have a chair in back of you and a wall nearby, just in case! Did you feel like you were swaying a lot? Could you maintain your posture? If you had to widen your base of support by stepping out, you may benefit from the inclusion of eyes-closed balance training in your program.
Another simple way to check your balance is to lift one foot off of the floor and see how long you can stand without your hips shifting to the side, leaning away, or needing to tap down. Can do you over 10 seconds with ease? Is one side easier or harder than the other? If you have difficulty with this, exercises such as high knee marches, step-ups, heel-toe walking and toe touches to the side and behind may be beneficial.
You can sneak in extra balance training by modifying your feet placement as you perform traditional strength exercises such as a simple overhead press or bicep curl. Feet closer together and split stances will challenge your stability more than feet under the hips.
Once you start to feel improvements and are ready for more of a challenge, you can combine exercises, such as standing on a foam pad with your eyes closed or standing on one foot while doing a gaze stabilization exercise. Balance training can be fun!
A few tips to reduce your fall risk:
Ensure walkways and floors in your home are clear of clutter and debris.
Place a motion activated nightlight in your path for nighttime trips to the bathroom (remember eyesight is a key component to keeping your balance!)
Be aware of the slippery combo of smooth socks and wood flooring! I’ve learned this lesson the HARD way – ouch.
Pay attention to how new medications affect you. Some medications can affect your blood pressure and make you dizzy upon standing up or exerting yourself. If you notice any increases in dizziness in general, talk to your doctor.
Add balance training to your schedule at least 3x per week.
If you aren't sure how to build balance training into your workouts, let’s chat!