Balance Training Techniques
Balance means different things to different people. Speaking of the physical aspect of balance, it is usually referred to as the relationship between our sight, proprioception, and vestibular/inner ear issues to the musculo-skeletal system. The relationship between muscular strength/weakness, joint condition, and overall neurological function in the body are instrumental in whether or not someone has “good balance”. One of the biggest problems we as a culture have is the fact that we all wear
shoes! As a Yoga instructor, I see every day how much shoes have caused our feet to become more and more neurologically lazy. We do not get the proper feedback through our feet when the surfaces we stand on change because our shoes do all the work. Imagine if we were bare-foot and stepped onto a rock, for instance, as we were walking through the grass. Immediately, out feet would register the hard surface of the rock to send a message to the muscles around the joints of the knee, hip, spine, etc. to respond accordingly to keep us from getting injured. Our shoes support our arches and control the foot as it goes through the motion of walking. Often in my classes, students
complain of their feet cramping up, their ankles getting tired, and their balance being very challenging. When we take off our shoes, pick one leg off the floor, and try to stand on one leg, many will fall immediately. As we get older, our neuromuscular skills will decrease if they are not challenged. Our ability to balance gets worse, and the fear associated with falling deepens. BKS Iyengar (famous yoga teacher) says, “It is an art to check the aging process. To stop its ascendance, one should learn to make old age a useful weapon. In this stage of life, one becomes negative. Courage starts declining and intelligence becomes dull. Anxiety encircles the older person. Laziness becomes a part of old age.”
Even if you think old age is a long way off, remember that we are all dying. If we can at least maintain what we have, we are actually PROGRESSING!! Working on balance now, rather than later, is a great plan in making old age a “useful weapon”. Many things can cause our sense of balance to become impaired. First, check out your posture. Our lack of activity is on of the reasons our posture starts to decline as we age. Many people begin to experience rounded shoulders, increased kyphosis or lordosis in the spine, and forward head syndrome. It is important that we continue to perform weight-bearing gravity-based activities, such as resistance training, yoga, or Pilates. By stimulating the bone with external and internal forces, it will create a need in the body
to strengthen bones and muscles enough to deal with the given load. Since gravity is in a sense causing us to “shrink”, think about incorporating exercises that move us out of these common postural problems. For instance, scapular retraction, spinal extension, hip extension, knee extension, cervical stabilization, and shoulder external rotation are all great movements to improve posture while moving joints in all available ranges and strengthening weak core muscles. Think of the body as a strong vertical axis, with the inner ear stacked over the shoulder, shoulder over the hips, hips over the knees, and knees over the ankles. Although it is impossible to look at an individual and tell what is going on inside the body that is causing poor posture, performing resistance and range of
motion exercises for the entire body regularly and properly is a great way to address these problems. A person’s risk of falling increases with muscle weakness, lack of ROM, and lack of activity, as one who tires faster will be more likely to lose his/her balance. Remember that exercising in the water is not enough. The body needs to be able to deal with the forces on land, since we are not born as fish! ;)
Many people can improve balance with learning how to shift their weight. Tai Chi is an excellent system designed to do just that. Many fitness centers, YMCAs and other organizations now offer classes. Tai Chi is a martial art form designed to improve overall health and well-being by learning to improve balance, alignment, fine-scale motor control, and rhythm of movement, or “meditation in motion”. Many practitioners notice a calming, relaxing effect on the body as well. This can be essential to helping the aging adult to feel less anxious in his/her daily activities.
If taking a Tai-Chi class is not an option, take off your shoes, stand up with your feet together, and raise one leg off the floor. Count to ten, then switch legs. In the beginning, try balancing near a wall or have a chair nearby for assistance. Feel the motion of the ankles, feet, and hips. As balance improves, increase the amount of time the one-leg balance is held. Once the floor is better, try placing the elevated foot on a stability ball. Progress to adding movement, bending and straightening the knee for instance, to further challenge the balancing ability of the standing leg. Many people also
like to train with such balance equipment such as “wobble” boards, rounded domes like the BOSU. Just make sure that you address the floor by itself. I rarely see many people who are very good with standing on their own two feet. Practicing yoga is also an excellent way to improve balance. Yoga is a synergistic, therapeutic system that works by practicing many different kinds of postures in a slow, progressive manner. No shoes are worn and imbalances in the body are brought to the forefront almost immediately. To strengthen and improve balance for the lower body, try the posture, Warrior Three. First, stand with your feet together. Step forward onto the right foot and transfer all of the body weight onto that foot. The knee joint must be fully extended and the foot/ankle steady. Exhale, end the trunk forward and simultaneously lift the left leg from the floor and extend the arms out from the shoulders. The whole body is parallel to the floor, with the right leg perpendicular. Holding onto a chair or wall is helpful to work on balance. Hold 20-30 seconds. Step the feet together and change sides.
Another balance pose is the extended holding the big toe pose. Standing upright with good posture, raise the right leg by bending the knee and holding the foot with either the hands or a belt/strap. Extend the right knee fully, keeping the hips parallel and chest lifted, keeping the scapulae retracted slightly. Start working on balance with your back against a wall then progress away from it. For a variation, try moving the leg out to the side or across the body to the left while maintaining the hip, shoulder, and standing leg position.
All postures and exercises in yoga and Pilates are designed to balance muscular strength and range of motion. A strong core will definitely improve posture to help in balance. Try a version of the Pilates “swimming” exercise. First, get on hands and knees. Find a neutral spine by lightly drawing engaging the transverse abdominus, drawing the navel to the spine. Keep the scapulae slightly retracted and the head in line with the torso. Lift and extend the right leg and opposing left arm in a straight line. Reach as far as possible to opposing walls and raise both limbs as high as possible. Hold for a few seconds maintaining level hips and shoulders with the neutral spine and then change
sides. For an advanced version of this exercise, progress towards lifting the same arm and leg one side of the body while still maintaining a neutral spine. Finally try the Pilates “side kick” exercise. Side-lying on the floor, rest the head in the hand and stack the hips and shoulders. Exhale and kick the top leg out in front of the bottom hip without rolling back. Finish with kicking the top leg back behind the bottom leg without rolling forward. Maintain neutral pelvis and never move so fast/so
far with the top leg that the hips and shoulders start to move out of position. Balance is definitely an innate feature that some people are born with. It can leave us if we don’t use it. As fitness instructors, it is important that we emulate a balanced lifestyle, complete with good nutrition, cardio-vascular fitness, regular strength training workouts, flexibility training, and adequate time to rest our bodies. The best way to get better at balance is to PRACTICE it! Avoiding the things that are difficult never makes us any better in performing those tasks. If anything, the things that are the most difficult and the most challenging are the very things that we need the most.
Lauren Eirk B.A., C.P.T
Certified Hatha Yoga Instructor, Continuing Education Provider
AFAA, ACE, AEA, AAAI/ISMA, RTS
Group Fitness Director, Louisville Athletic Club
web site: www.laureneirk.com