Everything in the world is conspiring to make you fall over. The ground is slippery, slick, and studded with protrusions. The earth moves under your feet. Discarded banana peels are an ever-present threat. Gravity itself exerts a constant downward pull.
You probably only think about balance when you decide to test it—or when you lose it. But you’re relying on it every second that you’re not lying prone. Whenever you work at your standing desk, step out of the shower, hustle across a busy intersection, or ride your kids to school on your bikes, you can thank your balance for allowing you to successfully move through your day without injury.
Stop for a second and think about how much goes into maintaining balance:
- Musculoskeletal strength and coordination: Balance requires not just adequately strong bones, muscles, and joints but also proper alignment. Muscles that are too tight or too weak can cause imbalances.
- Vision: Visual input provides an overview of the physical surroundings, and external focus (looking at a point in the environment) helps keep us from losing our balance as easily.
- Vestibular system: The fluid in our inner ears acts as a kind of level, telling us where our bodies are in space.
- Somatosensory system: The nerves in our muscles and connective tissues relay information about our position in the surroundings.
- Cognition: The brain has to integrate all the information coming in from the body and make adjustments on the fly to fight gravity.
That we (usually) manage to stay upright at all is impressive!
Why is balance important?
This might be obvious, but let’s run through it. Balance isn’t just standing on a stable surface without toppling over (static stability). It’s also maintaining your posture and technique while walking, running, jumping, cycling, or anything else that involves movement (dynamic stability). Balance is essential for all of us, and especially for athletes whose feats put them at regular odds with the forces that threaten to throw them off kilter. Athletes with better balance are less prone to falls and injury, especially if they have a prior history of injury.
The older you get, the more challenging balancing becomes, which makes sense. Muscular strength, bone density, vision, and somatosensory function all decline with age. Bone loss typically accompanies menopause, which is why over 70 percent of hip fractures in seniors occur in women. If you’re unlucky enough to suffer a hip fracture after the age of 50, you have a 24 percent chance of dying within a year. Balance assessments are an effective predictor of fall risk in the elderly. Better balance, less risk, as you’d expect.
What can I do to improve my balance?
Get enough sleep.
I don’t care if you’re sick of hearing me crow about sleep. It’s that important, and I’m going to continue to detail the many facets of life affected by poor sleep.
The day after a night of sleep deprivation, your dynamic balance suffers. Your ability to integrate sensorimotor function with visual input to control posture drops. Your postural stability gets wonky. If you keep it up at a chronic level, even missing “just a few hours” each night, you impair postural control.
Spend more time barefoot.
The foot, with its intricate architecture of small bones, connective tissue, and musculature, are designed to collective somatosensory information from the ground. Your toes grip the ground, and small adjustments in the feet and ankles correct for temporary, even imperceptible (to your conscious self) losses of balance. When your feet are encased in thick-soled, “supportive” footwear, you prevent your feet from serving these most important of functions.
Don’t rush through movements all the time. Move slooooowly and really feel the motion. Maintain control across the whole span.
Walking meditations involve slow, controlled strolls with intentional mindfulness paid to your body and your surroundings.
I really like different plank variations, including contralateral and side planks, for the slow yet strong stress they place on your balance capacity.
Balance isn’t all in the head. You don’t think yourself to stability. You must ultimately use your muscles to stabilize yourself. And while you don’t need to add 30 pounds of muscle and squat three times your bodyweight to improve balance, getting stronger does help. If you already know that balance is an issue for you, seek out a physiotherapist who specializes in balance exercises.
Work balance into the day.
This doesn’t have to be complicated. There are endless ways to work balance into the day and have fun doing it. Below are some of my favorite.
- Stand on one leg while you wait for coffee.
- Get off the concrete and walk on more natural surfaces—grass, sand, even gravel.
- Walk along the curb.
- When you go to the gym to lift heavy things, incorporate single-leg lifts like single-leg deadlifts and pistol squats.
Maintain a neutral spine.
Balance is about maintaining a stable, neutral spine amidst whatever gravity and life throws at you. So always focus on the spine.
Keep your shoulders back and chest up. Don’t thrust your check out, but don’t allow your shoulders to round forward either. Keep everything in a nice line. Keep your feet, ankles, knees, and hips mobile, lubed up, and primed for activity. Watch knee valgus (knee caving inward) during movements like squats.
This is basic posture, but it’s so important. If your head juts forward, you’re out of position. You’ve just committed 11 pounds of skull, flesh, and brain to a bad position where gravity can yank down on it. Now imagine running, jumping, or even just walking down the street with that big head lolling around upsetting your balance.
Get some air.
Jumping—and landing—is perhaps the single best test of balance. You’re flying through the air then landing. Your body wants to keep going, and you need to prevent that without tearing anything or falling over. There’s a lot going on, too much to intellectualize.
That’s why actually getting out and jumping is so important for balance. Keep the basics in mind:
- Land softly on the balls of your feet, then the heels
- Land with hip flexion, and absorb the impact with your quads, glutes, and hamstrings
- Don’t let your knees drift inward.
- Maintain that neutral spine.
Start small, and the body will take care of the rest. You do it, you land it, you do it again, you improve, you learn.
Want even more fun? Try a trampoline or a rebounder. I recently found myself on a 15-foot trampoline. The difference between jumping and landing with a neutral, aligned spine and jumping and landing even slightly hunched over was jarring. The former felt fluid and powerful and right. The latter felt all wrong, and I only jumped about half as high. Trampolines reward good balance. They enhance it, too.
Aging worsens everything associated with balance, so do your best not to age. I’m kidding, kinda. Everyone progresses through space-time. We all “get older.” But your biological age—the health and resilience of your tissues, organs, and abilities—is more malleable. You can’t turn back time, but you can compress morbidity:
- Stay active. Walk a ton. Lift something heavy a couple times a week.
- Eat the right amount of protein and carbs for your needs. Prioritize food quality where you can.
- Stop eating so often. Fast occasionally. Limit snacking.
- Get sunlight on your skin and in your eyes.
- Limit stress.
Do dynamic movements and balance training.
Balance adheres to the “use it or lose it” maxim. Take it for granted and fail to maintain it, and you’ll surely end up regretting it. If you’ve already noticed that your balance is slipping (no pun intended), it’s probably not too late to fix it.
Everyone should be incorporating targeted balance exercises into their regular routine. Start with the foundational balance exercises here. These movements can be done any time, anywhere. Treat them like microworkouts, scattered into your day as part of your commitment to frequent everyday movement, and/or set aside some time at the beginning or end of your gym sessions to focus on this crucial skill.
That’s about it for today, folks. How’s your balance? How has balance affected your life, your performance, and your injury risk? How do you train it?
Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care.
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