Often when we think of fitness we don’t think about balance. We don’t pay attention to the role it plays in our workouts, and we don’t set out to deliberately train for it.
And yet, balance is such a key thing to have in our arsenal of physical skills. This is true at any age, but particularly as we get older and our ability to balance starts to wane. Little wonder that these days a balance assessment is part of an annual physical (or it should be), and it is often addressed at many other doctor’s visits. Falling can literally mean the end of someone’s life, or the end of being able to live independently.
But let’s back up a bit. Let’s say you don’t want to get to that point. What can be done? Turns out the answer is wide-ranging. Balance is not just the ability to stand around on one leg. While that is a good skill to have, it may not translate to other skills that relate to balance.
Balance skills include recovering from tripping or not tripping in the first place, being able to reach for something without falling over, going up and down stairs, walking on uneven surfaces, shifting a weight like groceries from one side to another, or responding to a dog that is pulling on its leash.
On another level, there’s more athletic moves. Things like making a quick turn, leaping to return a tennis ball, pulling off the choreography in an exercise class, jumping from rock to rock to cross a stream, or recovering from a jump shot in basketball.
And on and on.
The reason that it goes on and on is that balance is a TOTAL BODY EXPERIENCE.
To illustrate this, you can do the following experiment. Stand on one leg. Then, bring the other leg behind you so that it is as close to parallel to the ground as you can. FIRST do this casually. Don’t think about it much. Just bring the leg behind, keeping it as straight as you can. Feel free to hang on to something to help you. Then let go of whatever is helping you and see how long you can maintain balance (see graphic).
THEN START OVER. Here’s the sequence to use:
- Stand tall, lift one leg in front of you and do some ankle circles, 10 each way. Then do the other ankle. (You can hang on to something if you need to.)
- Stand tall again. Activate your abdominals. Extend your spine. Put one leg behind you.
- With the supporting leg, make an effort to feel your foot planted on the ground with your weight distributed throughout your foot.
- Then, fire up the muscles in the supporting leg. This is no longer a casual effort.
- Keeping your abs/core tight, your spine extended, and your leg engaged, lean over until your lifted leg is straight and parallel to the ground. You can hang on to something to help you get to this position, but then let go. Arms hang down. (see graphic) Count how long you can hold this position. Chances are that you can hold this balanced position for longer than the casual attempt.
The point is this: Balance uses your core, all your muscles in a coordinated fashion, uses your ankles to create awareness of where your body is (this is called proprioception), and the bottom of your feet are giving you feedback as to what the ground is like beneath them.
And that is just the beginning. Your inner ear is letting you know how your head is factoring in all of this, and your eyes are giving you a tremendous amount of information about your surroundings and your relationship to it. (A classic balance experiment is to get in a balanced position and then close your eyes. You will discover that it makes everything MUCH harder.)
Keep Your Balance Sharp
Here’s a few suggestions for things to do to keep your balance sharp (See graphics below).
- You CAN just stand around on one leg, as above. BUT if you do that, be sure to approach it systematically, not casually. Use your core, your leg muscles all together, and stand tall. If possible, warm up with ankle circles, and then add in a fantastic foot connection with the ground.
- Stand on one leg while lifting a dumbbell with one arm only. (things like bicep curls, tricep extensions, shoulder presses, front raises)
- To get things working together even more, try a stationary lunge while doing a one-arm shoulder press (see graphic). Stationary lunge means you go up and down by bending the knees, but you do not take any steps. Bend your knees to lower down while lifting the weight straight up from your shoulder. It may not seem like you are working on your balance here, but you will feel how your entire body is working together to enable this to happen.
- Do a stationary lunge with one leg propped on a bench, Bosu, or stair behind you. (see graphic). Add in a one arm press-up if you want to kick this up a notch.
- Do squats on a Bosu or other unstable surface.
- You can even do one-legged bridges (see graphic). This will cause muscles in the working leg to work together to keep you from falling to one side.
There you have it! Just a few ideas to show you that balance is something you can work at in many ways. You may already be doing some of these in your workouts. If not, feel free to add in some of these, or use your imagination to create some others.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me!
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