Balance is something we can all take for granted and, if you haven’t tested your balance in a while, it can be something that you may not even be aware needs to be worked on. But why is balancing important?
If you really think about it, walking is just a series of standing on one leg as you push forward, as is going up the stairs – particularly if you have your hands full and can’t hold onto a handrail! Stepping over a curb, getting in and out of the car, getting dressed in the morning and stopping yourself from falling when you trip are all activities that require a degree of balance.
Furthermore, research has shown a direct link between balance training and improvements in conditions such as longstanding lower back pain and knee arthritis, as well as reducing the risk of re-injury after a sprained ankle by as much as 60%.
Balance training can also improve your coordination and, the better your coordination (which is simply the ability for all the muscles around a particular joint to work effectively together), the less likely you are to suffer from an injury and the more efficient and effortless your movements will become.
Balance training has a strong effect on a system known as proprioception. I will write a post on proprioception soon, but to put it simply for the benefit of todays post – proprioception is the body’s ability to know exactly what position each joint is in and where it is without needing to look at it. An example of proprioception in the arm would be if you closed your eyes and put your finger on your nose. If you have a good level of proprioception, you should be able to do this easily without needing to work out where your hand is. This is because the proprioceptive nerves in your hand are telling your brain where your hand is and in what position your finger is in (presumably pointing).
If you have experienced pain in an area of your body or have injured yourself, such as a sprained ankle or knee injury, you may find that your proprioception around that joint has been affected. This can place you at a higher risk of re-injury and is part of the reason why many people who have previously sprained their ankle go on to re-sprain their ankle again. Balance training on the affected side is a great way of reducing the risk of injury, especially if you have had a previous injury.
Balance training is also an effective way of strengthening your legs and your core. When you stand on one leg, you will feel lots of small movements in your foot, leg and trunk as your body tries to keep you balanced. This works the muscles and proprioceptive nerves extremely hard.
Interestingly, studies have shown that balance training on one leg will also improve the balance on the other leg, so if you are currently injured and unable to stand on your right leg (for example), practice balance exercises on your left leg (or vice versa) and you will improve your balance on your right side as well!
And finally, balance training improves reaction times. When we trip or stumble, we have a set of in-built reactions that save us from falling, our foot comes forward and our arms fly out, adjusting our centre of gravity and keeping us balanced and on our feet. All this happens in a split second, without any conscious thought from us and, the faster we react, the less chance there is of us falling over. The more we practice balance exercises, the faster these reactions become and this is important for which ever age group we are in. For example, a frail elderly person will be less likely to fall if they regularly do balance exercises. Similarly, it has been shown that athletes in the teens and twenties get less injuries if they incorporate balance training into their workouts. However, the balance exercises I would suggest that a fit teenage athlete should do would obviously be very different from the exercises I would prescribe to a frail elderly person!
So, we’ve established that balance exercises are extremely beneficial in terms of injury prevention, improving coordination, reducing the risk of falls, strengthening the core and legs, reducing pain and making movements easier and more effortless; but what is the best way to work on balance?
Firstly, it is worth noting that there are two types of balance – static (standing still on one leg) and dynamic (balancing with movement). A good place to start would be by testing your static balance.
Try this static balance exercise. Stand in front of your kitchen work surface or sink (so you can hold on if you feel that you might fall). Now bring your weight onto your right foot and try to balance without holding on – how long can you balance before needing to either put the left foot down or using your hands to hold on?
Now do the same on the other side – does it feel the same? Can you hold it for as long?
Repeat this a few times on both legs and see how it feels. Many people have a good side and a not so good side – I’m better at balancing on my left, whilst my right side always takes a bit more work!
If you find this hard, practice regularly throughout the day (maybe every time you put the kettle on to make a cup of tea or coffee, you could practice balancing while you wait for the kettle to boil). It is amazing how your balance can improve with practice. I find that many people often feel no difference at all for a while, then suddenly it seems to click and they find they can balance for longer.
When doing balance exercises, you should feel wobbly and unsteady – but not at risk of actually falling over. It is for this reason that I normally suggest doing balance exercises by the kitchen sink, or next to a wall, so if you feel you are going to fall, you will be able to catch yourself so that you don’t go over.
The static balancing exercise above is one way of improving your balance, but don’t forget to incorporate some dynamic balance exercises into your daily routine. I include both static and dynamic balance exercises into many of the Pilates classes on MyPhysioPilates.com.
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And as a final note on balance, please note that some neurological conditions, brain injuries and some age related changes can affect your balance systems and prevent the “saving reaction” from occurring. If you are in any doubt at all, please consult your GP or a Chartered Physiotherapist before starting any balance exercises.
Enjoy practicing your static balance exercise and I look forward to hearing how you get on in the comments below!