"In the end, it's all a question of balance"
Given the title, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this is another post about how to find that elusive state known as 'balance'; whether work-life, dietary or otherwise. Well, it's not. It's about actual balance. As in putting one foot in front of the other and not falling over - an underrated ability, in my opinion.
You may laugh, but if you've ever stumbled off a curb and twisted your ankle or gone flying over a tree route when out for a run, you'll know how frustrating it is to not be able to catch yourself before the damage is done.
As with many biomechanical functions of the body, balance can deteriorate with age, the phrase 'Use it or lose it' springing to mind. Whilst balance is also reliant on the visual (eyes) and vestibular (inner ear) systems, presuming your eyesight is ok and there are no issues with your ears, the other main factors to consider are strength and coordination.
Problems occur when the demand put on our ability to control our posture exceeds the body's capabilities - demand exceeding capability being a major factor in most injuries. Any unexpected external force (such as a trip, stepping on an unstable surface or even bending over to pick something up), requires the body to react quickly to the sensory feedback provided by our joints and signal to muscles to act accordingly. If the body's capability to react is diminished, injury becomes more likely.
The Three Tenets of not falling over
So, what can we do to increase our chances of staying upright when the forces are working against us? There are three key areas of training that can be easily incorporated into exercise sessions or even daily activities, that will help to develop and maintain balance throughout life.
Got kids? Why not get them involved in a game that involves them throwing things at you?! From about 3 metres away, have them quickly roll or bounce a tennis ball towards you, which you have to stop using only your feet or legs. Just had a birthday party? Use one of the balloons for a game of 'keepie-uppie', trying to avoid various pieces of furniture around the house.
If you're a runner who tends to stick to the pavements, why not try trail running? By varying your running surface and introducing uneven footing and unpredictable obstacles, you're naturally developing your reflexes to these new stimuli. Start slow and build up your speed - before you know it, you'll be hurdling those fallen branches like Colin Jackson!
We spend a lot of time on one leg. Think about it: walking, climbing stairs, running. There's that split-second when one leg has left the floor before it touches the ground again, that you're effectively standing on one leg. So, it makes a lot of sense to test your coordination whilst making like a flamingo.
If you have access to a kettlebell, use one that's around 6-8kg. If not, just fill up a canvas bag with a few bags of flour/sugar or tins of beans and improvise. Holding your weight in one hand by your side, shift your weight onto one leg and lift the other foot a few inches off the floor. Pass the weight from one hand to the other across the front of your body (like a pendulum), whilst trying to keep your balance. The further you lift the weight out to your side and the quicker you make the pass, the more difficult it will be. Do this for around 30 seconds on one leg, then switch.
How many times do you brush your teeth a day? Twice? Three times? (Once?! That's not good - get yourself to the dentist.) Try doing it standing on one leg... with your eyes closed. When you close your eyes, you should still be able to sense where your body is in space and the sensations it's experiencing. Focus on trying to evenly distribute your weight across your standing foot. Can you keep brushing your teeth and keep your balance?
We lose both muscle mass and strength as we age. Physically inactive people can lose as much as 3-5% of their muscle mass each decade after age 30. Whilst the size of your muscles matters to a degree, it's their strength that's most important when it comes to functioning well.
Exercises that target key joints, such as knees, hips and shoulders, can make a real difference to your ability to coordinate movements and maintain a sense of your body's positioning as you move (also known as proprioception). Basic, compound movements, such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, rows and presses (both press-ups and shoulder press variations) teach you to control your entire body through a full range of motion. They also place a high demand on your core - core control and strength being another important aspect of good balance.
If you think that these movements sound like something only burly guys do whilst grunting in the gym, think again.
SQUAT - getting in and out of a chair
LUNGE - walking up and down stairs, bending down to tie your shoelaces
DEADLIFT - picking up a box or bag from the floor with both hands
ROW - pulling... anything!
PRESS - pushing... anything / lifting objects into overhead cupboards, bags into airplane lockers
As with any aspect of health and fitness, maintaining good balance takes a little effort. That said, it's a lot less effort to stand on one leg whilst brushing your teeth than it is to rehab a twisted ankle. Prevention, as always, is better than cure, so the next time you see that ubiquitous flamingo print somewhere on the high street, consider what you can do to be as unwavering on one leg as you are on two.