Learning to Stand on Your Own Two Feet: The Art & Science of Balance

In the last blog entry, I talked about how the ways we move create and maintain communication pathways between the brain and body. These pathways help with coordination, avoiding injuries, and beating chronic pain syndrome. Now, I’d like to dive a little deeper and talk about how moving can affect your balance and in turn your performance.

Balance is a pretty intricate skill that is a prerequisite for any movement. It allows you to run, play sports, walk around the block, and even stand still without toppling over. By training to improve balance skills, you can increase awareness of where your body is in space, boost reaction times, decrease risk of injury, and maintain better posture. Optimizing your ability to balance also allows you to focus more on the task at hand, whether that happens to be scoring a goal in a soccer game or reaching for a box from the top of a storage shelf in the garage, without consciously trying to avoid falling.

The Balance Trifecta

There are three main components to balance. Your eyes and ears hold the keys to the first two pieces in the balance puzzle. Vision allows you to take note of your surroundings. You can see whether objects around you are vertical or horizontal, and whether the surrounding terrain is flat or uneven. Your eyes take in information your brain needs to draw connections about where you are in space to help keep you upright.

The middle section of the ear contains sensory receptors called “hair cells” which help to identify movements of the head. Sudden head movements can be a sign of loss of balance or falling. Regular movements of the head, like when you are walking, are also picked up by the hair cells, and these rhythmic changes let the brain know that you are purposefully moving around and not in danger of falling and getting injured.

The final pieces of this balance trifecta are the feet and ankles. This last component plays a lead role in both static and dynamic balance (meaning balancing while standing still on flat surfaces, as well as when moving around on uneven ground). Roughly one-third of the body’s nerve endings are found in the feet. These nerve endings relay information about the type of ground we are standing on to the brain to help maintain balance.

A hiccup in the world of balance…

In a word: shoes. In the modern world, shoes provide comfort, style, and protection for the feet. However, shoes can also hinder our balance.

When we are born, our feet come with pre-made shock absorbing cushions called “plantar fat pads” that are located on the bottom of the feet. These fat pads absorb shock and impact forces that come with movement, guarding the feet from damage and injury. This protective mechanism does well keeping the feet from damage on natural surfaces like grass and dirt, but can’t withstand a lifetime of walking around on man-made surfaces like concrete. Hence the need for shoes: providing an extra layer of protection.

While shoes are necessary on these concrete surfaces to protect the feet over the course of a lifetime, they also hinder the ability of the nerve endings in the feet to accurately interact with the ground. Shoes create an artificially flat and constant surface underfoot that will, overtime, dampen the reaction skills of the nerve endings, consequently causing a balance deficit.

This loss of balance may not even be something that we are generally aware of. It becomes each individual’s “normal” balance ability. But, this loss can have great effects on how well you can perform a task and remain standing. Particularly, as old age approaches, these losses become more apparent. So, even though we can’t go barefoot all of the time in the world we live in today, we can practice balance exercises.

Finding Balance

To test where you fall on the balance scale, stand barefoot on flat ground with a railing or a wall nearby. Carefully, stand on one leg with your eyes open and see how stable you feel. The next step is to test your balance in all three planes of motion (leaning backward, leaning side to side, and leaning backward with a rotational component). So how did you do? You may have found that while you can stand on one foot, once you began to move through the three planes of motion, things got tricky. Turning these movement tests into training exercises will help to improve your overall balance over time.

These training exercises can be made more challenging as you gain more control of your balance by moving from stable ground to a foam pad, and then rocker board or wobble board. I recommend talking with your healthcare provider or a personal training coach to help screen your own balancing abilities and supplement some training exercises into your workout program.

Standing on one leg, may seem trivial, but this is a skill used constantly by most people on a daily basis. Every time you run, you are standing on one leg with every step you take. Imagine the possibilities and the improvements you can make to your performance in whatever activities you do if you add balancing exercises into your workout routine.

Until Next Time,

Abby Scheer, DC