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Balance: Forever Young

The expression, “you are only as young as you feel”, may be revised to “you are only as young as your ability to balance.” Try this: Stand on one leg, close your eyes and count to 30. Repeat this standing on your other leg. How did you do? Unless you are under the age of 25, chances are you were unable to hold this pose for that length of time.

The popular Nintendo Wii Fit uses a similar test to estimate a person’s biological age or “true” age. Why is balance a good indicator of youthfulness? Our ability to balance is a reflection of our posture, a measure of our reflexes and a gauge of our muscle strength, especially the core. It also reduces our chance of injury, improves agility, coordination and grace. These attributes are important to everyone, young and old, athletes and regular folks, whether the goal is to accomplish daily tasks or extremely challenging sports.

There are many conditions that can affect balance–strokes, diabetes, inner ear problems, foot problems, high or low blood pressure and certain medications, to name a few. As we age, the likelihood of having one or more of these conditions increases. No wonder a lack of balance is associated with the elderly. The consequences of falling are also very serious. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that 30% of seniors, age 65 or older, who fall and break their hip, will die within a year.

The statistics on younger people are far less clear. Accidents, mishaps, and clumsiness are excused as an inevitable consequence of life. Perhaps this is true to some degree, but recent trends to include balance training as part of fitness routines indicates that balance can improve at any age. Why wait for physical therapy to start training your balance systems?

If you performed badly on the balance test in the first paragraph, don’t feel too bad. Static balance, or the ability to maintain one’s equilibrium while still, is only half of the balance equation. Dynamic balance, or the ability to maintain one’s equilibrium while moving, is also essential. Reaching and recovering, a quick turn, an unexpected downward step are examples of actions requiring dynamic balance. Both static and dynamic balance training should be included in any program to improve one’s balance.

Poor posture interferes with the ability to balance. If the body isn’t aligned, it is difficult to stack, center and hold a position, for example, a yoga pose. Misaligned posture also prevents free uninhibited movement required for dynamic balance or balance in motion. Gymnasts, star quarterbacks, dancers and other athletes or performers exhibit extraordinary dynamic balance. We know it when we see it, flowing, synchronized movement that looks effortless. An ordinary activity like walking can demonstrate effortlessness or awkwardness as well. This is why exercise and rehab professionals include gait analysis as part of their postural assessments.

“Gracefulness has been defined to be the outward expression of the inward harmony of the soul.”   William Hazlitt

Balancing challenges our reflexes, as any police officer administering a sobriety test will tell you. The response of the nervous system to external forces is known as “proprioception.” Stand on a bosu (it looks like half of a large inflatable ball) and feel your body shake as it involuntarily reacts to stay upright. That’s proprioception. Proprioception can be trained to enhance movement efficiency. Simply put, you can train your muscles to respond to such things as uneven terrain and greatly reduce your chance of injury. Exercises that involve transferring weight or stepping onto an unstable object such as a wobble board, stability disc, or bosu are an example of this type of training. It is important to master stepping onto a stable object before progressing toward a less stable object. Always practice near a wall or support until your skill level develops.

The core muscles must activate in order to stabilize the spine during balance. A lack of core strength can easily translate into a lack of balance. The “plank” is an example of a fundamental core exercise. It starts like a push-up, but instead you hold the position. If this is too difficult, try putting your hands on something higher off the ground, like a bench. The idea is to hold the body in straight alignment from head to heels, stiff as a board. If the low back starts to sag, stop the exercise. This exercise can also be performed on the elbows and forearms if you have a wrist or hand issue. If you have a shoulder problem, you probably should find another more appropriate core exercise. Check out www.mayoclinic.com/health/core-strength/SM00047 for a slide show of core exercises.

Maintaining balance is important in many areas of life–a balanced diet, balance between work and play, balance of power or a balance sheet in business. Maintaining physical balance is just as important in order to avoid injury, to create ease of movement and to age gracefully. Dictionary.com describes balance as “a general harmony of parts.” This is true for physical balance as well as emotional, artistic, or financial balance. Better than any wrinkle cream, training posture, reflexes, and core muscle strength can create a more vibrant feeling and appearance to keep you living forever young.

By Paula Skinner

Article written for Destination Tampa Bay magazine