What is balance?
Balance is our ability to maintain the body’s centre of mass over its base of support. In other words being able to distribute our weight evenly in order to remain upright and steady whether stationary (termed a static balance) or moving (a dynamic balance).
A properly functioning balance system allows us to see clearly while moving, orient ourselves in relation to gravity, determine direction and speed of movement, and then make automatic adjustments to maintain posture and stability in whatever we’re doing and whatever the conditions, e.g. walking on a pebbly beach, riding a bike, getting out of bed to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, running on a treadmill etc.
How Do We Balance?
Balance is achieved and maintained by a complex set of control systems involving input from the eyes, ears, and from the skin, muscles and joints being sent to the brain for processing:
- The eyes provide visual cues identifying how a person is oriented relative to other objects.
- The ears provide sensory information about movement, equilibrium, and where we are in a space.
- The skin, muscles and joints have special receptors which provide information about any change in stretch or pressure the body may be experiencing. The receptors in the neck and ankle are particularly important. Cues from the neck indicate the direction in which the head is turned. Cues from the ankles indicate the body’s movement relative to both the standing surface (floor or ground) and the quality of that surface, e.g. hard, soft, slippery, or uneven.
The brain sorts the input received from the eyes, ears, skin, muscles and joints, and integrates it with any previously learned information from past experiences, e.g. repeated automatic movements like tossing a tennis ball when serving, or an awareness we have to use slower, more precise steps when walking on an icy pavement. The brain then “talks” to the muscles that control the movements of the eyes, head and neck, trunk, and legs, enabling us to maintain balance and have a clear vision while moving.
These complex sensori-motor control systems which enable us to achieve and maintain balance can be impaired if the eyes, ears, skin, muscles or joints are not working properly, e.g. through injury, illness, lack of use or the aging process.
How to improve your balance
There are a number of important benefits associated with having an enhanced sense of stability, e.g. protection against falls, better mobility, fewer injuries when going about our daily lives or playing sport, greater capacity to push ourselves when we exercise, leading to increased overall fitness.
Essential to achieving and maintaining good balance are:
- core muscle strength;
- strong, powerful leg muscles, particularly the quadriceps;
- strong, powerful gluteal muscles;
- strength and flexibility in the ankle joints and feet;
- the ability to use multiple muscle groups. Researchers looking at the human balance system measured muscle use in a group of professional dancers against those of people who had no dance or gymnastics training. The dancers not only moved with more grace and precision, but deployed more muscle groups, even when just walking across a flat floor, than those with no training;
- practice and repetition. A baby learns to balance by practising and repeating movements. Impulses sent from the sensory receptors to the brain and then out to the muscles form a new pathway. With repetition, it becomes easier for these impulses to travel along that nerve pathway—a process called facilitation—and the baby is then better able to maintain balance during any activity. This pathway facilitation is the reason dancers and athletes practise so much. Even very complex movements become almost automatic over a period of time.
- confidence/a positive attitude. If you think “oh no, a balance, I’m rubbish at balancing” before you attempt a balance exercise in class, you will more than likely execute it poorly;
- a good night’s sleep. Sleep deprivation slows reaction time and is also directly related to falls. Researchers tracked nearly 3,000 people and found that those who typically slept between 5 and 7 hours each night were 40% more likely to fall than those who slept longer.
The Pilates classes I run in Clevedon and Bristol are carefully prepared to provide exercises which build a strong core, improve the strength and flexibility of the leg and gluteal muscles, encourage the correct activation of all the muscles required to perform a movement (nothing overworking, nothing underworking), and increase the strength and flexibility of the ankles and feet. Balance exercises chosen from a wide range, are also a key feature of the classes.
Just like strength and flexibility, balance can be improved if we continually challenge it. This is achieved in my Pilates classes by performing both static and moving balances, as well as by encouraging people to try and balance:
- on an unstable surface, e.g. a small Pilates ball;
- in different positions, e.g. on all fours in table-top, extended kneeling etc
- with eyes closed;
- on a smaller surface area, e.g. on one foot or with both feet together rather hip-width apart
- for increasingly longer periods of time.
Right, time to go practise my balance beam routine. Here’s one I did earlier…when I was Chinese…and a bit younger…