What is balance?
BALANCE IS NOT STATIC…IT’S CONTROLLING MOTION
So there you are comfortably sitting down reading an article on balance and stability. I’m truly am quite thrilled that you are interested in this topic, but sitting down while reading this will simply not do, so please stand up and get ready for some movement! From the words of Physical Therapist Gary Gray, “If you want to learn to dance you must get off of yours pants!”
Ok, that is much better. This is the first of a four part series of articles to touch upon a popular and important topic, balance. This first articles focus is to shed light upon the basic principles of what keeps us upright and doing the activities we desire to do. In this piece, we will very briefly discuss the basic sensors that detect our surroundings and help us control our bodies against gravity. Next, we’ll discuss some of the common misconceptions about balance training that appears to perpetuate themselves in many programs. Finally, we will go over a few quick exercises to try that are “balance” oriented.
In opening, we thoroughly take it for granted, but our bodies are amazing machines. In order to survive and thrive we have a vast network of systems (such as the cardio-respiratory, nervous, endocrine, etc) working in harmony constantly.In order to move about our surroundings, we must use our nose, ears, eyes, vestibular system, and proprioceptive systems to take information in and to somehow use it to move through our environment seamlessly. We will focus on the proprioceptive system in this short article.
The proprioceptive system can be thought of as an extensive network of sensors that assist in detecting what is going on in our surroundings and gives us the ability to quickly react and take action. These various proprioceptors can be found in skin, fascia, ligaments, joint capsules, tendons, and muscles. They all work together to detect strain, pressure, pain, position AND motion (movement turns them on the most) of skin, muscles, and joints at any given moment. These detectors collect data, interpret it, and perform a response typically before we even know about it. The fact that most of the network of sensors in our body is mostly subconscious is of extreme benefit to us. Just the simple act of walking across the room would be nearly impossible if we’d have to try to interpret all of that information as it was coming in.
Next, lets build a brief foundation in order to understand what are some common misconceptions regarding balance training. Most of us have heard the phrase “I need to work on my balance” or “My trainer is working on my proprioceptors.” Since our bodies are CONSTANTLY receiving information, everything is proprioceptive. Plus, the more we are moving, the more information we are receiving from ALL body sensors! This is why trying to work on balance by being still or static is not very effective.A better question would be: “How do I work my proprioceptive system best?” That all depends on what our goal is. For example, if my objective was to be able to navigate across a crowded street with curbs and potholes that would certainly be a different task then if my goal were to have better balance after a ballistic tennis serve. Our training should be geared for the task. Remember balance is never static. Balance is controlling motion! We can look at it as the bodies ability to sense motion going in one direction, decelerate to a stop, then move us into another direction(Transformational Zones--Gray Institute Credit for this), only to do it all over again. These transformation zones occur in every activity and are the key to improving balance or an even better word, function.
I went a very long way in order to finally come back and mention a couple of misconceptions of balance training. The following are popular yet misleading:
*Static standing on one leg.
*Standing on wobbly boards or discs.
Doing various exercises standing on one leg or working on unstable surfaces are tools that have their place, but should be used appropriately! Why? How often do you truly ever stand statically on one leg? In real life, how often do you stand on an artificial unstable surface? Remember, you are teaching your body constantly how to react and respond. Balance training on unstable objects is tools that we should tweak into our program to add variety once we’ve mastered the ability to decelerate our own body weight against gravity and ground reaction forces, and the utilization of momentum to our advantage.
So now you may be wondering what are some simple exercises that you can do today to help improve dynamic balance for tomorrow? By now, you should know that there are millions of exercises, maybe even billions! This is why I had trouble narrowing it down for such a broad audience, but I realize I have to put something on paper, so here goes! Since you are standing let’s get to it! For those of you who are visual learners, I posted this video on my YouTube sight at:
1. Keeping your feet shoulder width apart, step your right foot forward about 2-3 feet in front of the left. Your feet are pointing forward.
2. Take your hands and reach down for your feet as if you are going to tie your shoes. (Allow your knees to bend if you like)
3. Then reverse direction and take your hands as high overhead and behind you as possible. Repeat! To challenge this you can narrow the stance, go faster, close your eyes, etc.
1. Same stance as above, places arms overhead with an emphasis on lifting your ribcage.
2. Allow arms and trunk to rock side to side as far to the left and as far to the right as possible. To challenge this you can narrow the stance, go faster, close the eyes etc.
1. Same stance as above, place arms overhead with an emphasis on lifting your ribcage.
2. Circle the arms pelvis and ribcage around as if you have a hula-hoop around your hips Increase the range and the speed to challenge.
So how do you feel after those simple movements? For many of you, you were obviously way below your threshold for success. On the other end of the spectrum, there may be some of you seasoned citizens who had difficulty with these exercises and you felt quite unstable. We will address BOTH ends of the spectrum in the upcoming articles.
In conclusion, balance training is a very complex endeavor that must be addressed specific to the needs, abilities, and goals of the client. There is no cookbook approach that works for everyone, so we must learn to think out of the box. We are three-dimensional creatures, and once we start working with clients with a chain reaction mindset we can have a dramatic affect on function! Email me with any questions, and I look forward to digging deeper into this topic next time!