We all know the general components of a workout: cardio, strengthening, and flexibility. But an often-overlooked aspect of physical fitness is balance. Training our body to rapidly make those split-second adjustments to accommodate for a crack in the sidewalk or getting bumped by another player can be a ‘make it or break it’ for injury prevention.
In order to understand how to challenge our balance, we need to know how our body keeps us grounded. We use three major systems to keep our balance: our visual system, our vestibular system (or inner ear), and our proprioception system. The proprioception system is our body’s joint position sense; it tells our body where we are in space.
With this in mind, the first way to challenge our balance is to eliminate or skew information coming from one of these systems. If standing on one leg is getting to be easy, try standing on one leg with your eyes closed (eliminating vision) or standing on one leg on a cushioned/unstable surface (skewing the proprioceptive system). To challenge the vestibular system, try incorporating head turns while keeping your eyes fixed on a target.
The next thing to consider is the width of your base of support. When we place our feet far apart, we have a very large base of support which gives us more “wiggle room” before we lose our balance. Think about a lineman about to take a hit—he widens his feet apart and squats to lower his center of gravity to be as stable as possible in anticipation of an external force hitting him. Conversely, if we narrow our feet—standing with feet together, feet in tandem, or standing on one leg—we place a larger challenge to our balance as that stable base is much smaller.
Finding ways to up-train your balance is different for everyone. While one person may favor the visual system and finds standing with his/her eyes closed very challenging, another person may find this does not increase the challenge. So, there will be some trial-and-error when deciphering which systems your body tends to use the most, and which systems could use the most training.
While we want to challenge our balance, we don’t want to overdo it and risk falling. Therefore, it is important to train our balance while taking measures to ensure our safety. Having a spotter can be helpful when trying new balance activities. Training in the corner of a room can also provide additional safety, as you could reach out to stabilize yourself against the wall should you unexpectedly use your balance.
All this said, if you have a history of falling or other conditions that may make you prone to falling—like vertigo or significant orthopedic issues—it may be best to have the guidance of a professional when first starting out.
When it comes to training balance, the sky’s the limit. Enjoy trying new and different ways to continue to challenge your body to progress to the most efficient, best self it can be.
Jennifer Zellers, P.T., D.P.T. received her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from Columbia University and is an Advanced Clinician I at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
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