When learning about fitness, one of the fundamental facts to understand is that there are actually four types of exercise: strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance. A well-rounded fitness routine includes all of these, but people seem to neglect one of these more than the others. You might have guessed it already: it’s balance.
Most people don’t realize how important balance is until there’s is either challenged or they begin to lose it as they age. The thing is, you’re using your balance all the time. When you’re walking you’re constantly changing surfaces between concrete, grass, rocks, etc and negotiating obstacles like curbs and stairs. Every time you reach for something on your tip toes or slightly out of reach, you’re using your balance. Each step and movement you make requires you entire body to coordinate to keep you upright and moving where you want to go, and it’s impressive how our bodies do it most of the time without us even having to think about it.
Because you probably don’t think about your balance that often, you also probably don’t think about the benefits you could see from improving yours. Enhancing balance improves posture, allows you to complete more advanced movements in your workout, and can prevent falls into old age. Good balance helps athletes respond quickly to unexpected movements, and spares them from a variety of sports injuries.
So what exactly is balance anyways?
Balance actually has three main components:
Vision – Ever tried to walk with your eyes closed? It’s pretty hard, right? Your eyes are constantly communicating to your brain about our environment and correcting your positioning. On easy terrain, this can be pretty unconscious, but as you’ve probably experienced climbing rocks at the beach, it can get tricky even with your eyes open.
Muscles and Joints – Your musculoskeletal system is constantly making small corrections in your feet, ankles, and hips to keep you steady. When you watch a child learning to walk for the first time, you probably notice how wobbly they are. By now you’ve gotten pretty good at standing, but try shifting your leg to one leg, barefoot, and see how much your ankles, feet, and probably whole body starts moving back and forth, left and right, to keep you centered.
Vestibular System – This is the system found in the inner ear that transmits information about body position and movement back to the brain. Remember when you were a kid and you’d spin in circles as long as you could and then try to walk in a straight line? The thing throwing you off your balance was the fluid imbalance in your inner ear system.
Your brain combines the information provided by these three components to keep you balanced. When one of these systems is challenged or damaged, the body has to learn to rely more heavily on the other two, a situation most will find pretty difficult if they are faced with it unexpectedly.
Starting to think about adding more balance work into your workout? Good! The more difficult the balancing exercise, the great range of motion, muscle strength, and visual acuteness you’ll require.
If you’re not sure where to start, tai chi, yoga and pilates classes are a great way to get some professional guidance. If group classes aren’t your thing, start simple (think standing on one foot, doing a headstand) and work your way up (like working towards dancers pose and handstands during a short yoga flow.)
If you work on your balance now, not only will you be able to take your workout to the next level today, but you’ll be much better off in the future should health issues or simply the affects of aging start to effect one or more aspects of your balance.