Are you balanced?
Close your eyes and stand on one foot. It’s hard right? Balance is something most of us take for granted, yet we use it all the time. It’s automatically hardwired into our bodies at birth, evolving and adapting as we grow and age. While basic balance is innate, some of us are able to perfect or even master our balance through exercise and practice. We don’t often think about our balance‚ until of course, we lose it.
So if you’re interested to know how having balance works and how to improve your balance read on…
What is balance?
Balance is the ability to maintain the body’s centre of mass over its base of support. A properly functioning balance system allows us to see clearly while we are moving, determine direction and speed of movement, and make automatic postural adjustments to maintain posture and stability in various conditions and activities.
Balance is achieved and maintained by a complex set of sensory and motor control systems. This involves sensory input from vision (sight), proprioception (touch), and the vestibular system (motion, equilibrium, spatial orientation); integration of that sensory input; and motor output to the eye and body muscles. Injury, disease, certain drugs, or the ageing process can affect one or more of these components. There may also be psychological factors that impair our sense of balance such as anxiety.
Maintaining balance depends on information received by the brain from three peripheral sources: eyes, muscles and joints, and vestibular organs. All three of these information sources send signals to the brain in the form of nerve impulses from special nerve endings called sensory receptors.
INPUT FROM THE EYES
Sensory receptors in the retina are called rods and cones. When light strikes the rods and cones, they send impulses to the brain that provide visual cues identifying how a person is oriented relative to other objects.
INPUT FROM THE MUSCLES AND JOINTS
Proprioceptive information from the skin, muscles, and joints involves sensory receptors that are sensitive to stretch or pressure in the surrounding tissues. For example, increased pressure is felt in the front part of the soles of the feet when a standing person leans forward. With any movement of the legs, arms, and other body parts, sensory receptors respond by sending impulses to the brain. Along with other information, these stretch and pressure cues help our brain determine where our body is in space.
The sensory impulses originating in the neck and ankles are especially important. Proprioceptive cues from the neck indicate the direction in which the head is turned. Cues from the ankles indicate the body’s movement or sway relative to both the standing surface (floor or ground) and the quality of that surface (for example, hard, soft, slippery, or uneven).
INPUT FROM THE VESTIBULAR SYSTEM
Sensory information about motion, equilibrium, and spatial orientation (awareness of where we are in space) is provided by the vestibular apparatus, which includes the utricle, saccule, and three semi-circular canals in the inner ear. These vestibular organs on both sides of the head send symmetrical impulses to the brain.
How is all this integrated? Here’s how…
Balance information provided by the peripheral sensory organs – eyes, muscles and joints, and the two sides of the vestibular system is sent to the brain stem. There, it is sorted out and integrated with learned information contributed by the cerebellum (the coordination centre of the brain) and the cerebral cortex (the thinking and memory centre). The cerebellum provides information about automatic movements that have been learned through repeated exposure to certain motions. For example, by repeatedly practicing serving a ball, a tennis player learns to optimise balance control during that movement. Contributions from the cerebral cortex include previously learned information; for example, because icy pavements are slippery, one is required to use a different pattern of movement in order to safely navigate them.
As sensory integration takes place, the brain stem transmits impulses to the muscles that control movements of the eyes, head and neck, trunk, and legs, thus allowing a person to both maintain balance and have clear vision while moving.
Motor output to the muscles and joints
A baby learns to balance through practice and repetition as impulses sent from the sensory receptors to the brain stem and then out to the muscles form a new pathway.
Practicing reinforces new pathways so hence why dancers and athletes practice so arduously. Even very complex movements become nearly automatic over a period of time. If a problem with one sensory information input were to develop, this system can help the balance system reset and adapt to achieve a sense of balance again.
For example, dancers learn that in order to maintain balance while performing a series of pirouettes, they must keep their eyes fixed on one spot in the distance as long as possible while rotating their body.
The coordinated balance system
The human balance system involves a complex set of sensory and motor control systems. Its interlacing feedback mechanisms can be disrupted by a range of processes such as injury, disease, the aging process etc. Even simple things such as glue ear as a child or an injury in the body can have far reaching effects on the body…..and of course the ageing process, which comes to us all. However there are things you can do to improve your balance.
Ways to improve your balance
Get your feet to listen to what is under them. Focus on your what you can feel under your feet. Don’t look at the ground, just walk or run being more mindful of the change of surfaces, little bumps or stones underfoot. Our feet and ankles are packed with receptors to allow our foot position to change as we walk on uneven surfaces. Feel how much stronger and more balanced you feel when you are more mindful or consciously aware of what’s under your feet!
Single leg stand. Start by holding yourself steady on the back of a chair or another sturdy handhold. Lift one foot to about calf level and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 10-15 times and then switch to the other leg. Over time, as your balance gets better, you may be able to hold this position with your hands free.
Sit on a gym ball and keeping the weight equal between both of your sitting bones, turn your head from side to side with your eyes open. Most people find that ok. However then try with your eyes closed or in a dim light if that is too much. Staying soft in your head and neck. Notice how much more difficult it is with your eyes closed. You can even add in a little bounce and see how that changes things.
Heel – toe walking – this narrows the base down making balance a little more challenging. Walk slowly in a straight line, touching your heel to the opposite foot’s toe as you go. Go about 20 paces, using a wall for support if you feel unsteady. Then you can progress to doing this with your eyes closed, but make sure you have enough room to not bump into something… see how much more of a challenge this is.
Yoga Tree pose – standing on one leg with your foot into your thigh or calf (not over the knee) and hands in prayer position at your chest. Fix into the ground with your foot and imagine your foot is expanding to support you. If you can do that close your eyes and see how well you do. If you can master that then raise your arms palms together over your head, or have your arms raised either side of you and rotate your trunk from one side to the other, with your eyes open.
How did you get on? let us know.
If you’d like help with balance give us a call on 01480 455221 or book online here.