When you’re young, losing your balance isn’t a big deal. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off and you put a band-aid on your boo boo. If you’re lucky, your mum will kiss it better for you too.
However, when you get older, losing your balance becomes a very big deal. Let these facts from the CDC wash over you for a minute.
- One out of five falls causes a serious injury such as broken bones or a head injury.
- Each year, 3 million older people are treated in emergency departments for fall injuries.
- Over 800,000 patients a year are hospitalized because of a fall injury, most often because of a head injury or hip fracture.
- Each year at least 300,000 older people are hospitalized for hip fractures.
- More than 95% of hip fractures are caused by falling, usually by falling sideways.
- Falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries.
- In 2015, the total medical costs for falls totaled more than $50 billion. Medicare and Medicaid shouldered 75% of these costs.
Source– CDC website
Not only is it robbing older adults of their freedom and mobility, it’s costing the public big dollars too. And when they fall, some of them can’t get up leading them further down the road of disability and (most likely) added costs. This loss of mobility makes it two-three times more likely that they will meet their maker. (1)
However, before getting into the nitty-gritty of what you can do to improve your balance, let’s look at the systems within the body that govern balance and what balance is.
Balance is ‘the ability to maintain the body’s center of mass over its base of support.’(2) Balance is both static (still) and dynamic (movement).
The systems that work to keep you upright are,
1. The Vestibular system – is in the inner ear. This provides the brain information about the body’s motion, equilibrium and spatial awareness.
2. The Musculoskeletal system – skin, muscles, ligaments and tendons send sensory information to the brain that makes you aware of your bodies position in space and when changes happen in your environment.
3. The Neuromuscular system – information from the eyes, vestibular and musculoskeletal systems travel via the neuromuscular system to the brain which then sends information to respond to changes in the environment via the central and peripheral nervous system.
Balance is probably the most overlooked factor in training and in daily life, but it’s fundamental to almost everything you do. Walking, taking the stairs or playing your favorite sport all involve single leg balance to some degree.
Here’s a little test before you go any further.
Grab a stopwatch and see if you can balance between 10-20 seconds on either foot. Stand by a wall for safety. If you touch the wall or your foot touches the ground, the test is over.
If it’s less than 10 seconds, stop reading and take Dan’s advice and go see your doctor. It may just save your life. However, if you balanced between 10-20 seconds, please keep reading because you still have some work to do.
Here are some simple techniques you can introduce into your training, so you can improve balance, reduce injuries and age gracefully.
An ounce of prevention is worth its weight in gold.
1. Unilateral training
Reducing muscle strength imbalances due to activities of daily living (carrying more groceries on one side over the other for instance) can go a long way to improving balance and reducing everyday injuries also.
And it’s as simple as lifting with one limb at a time.
If you have a strength or muscle size imbalance between sides, always start with the weaker or smaller side first because the weaker side determines the weight and reps you’ll do on the stronger side.
Here are three staple exercises I use in my programs to help improve a person’s balance and they’re simple and effective.
Cable single arm row
Single arm press
Bodyweight split squat (hang on to something sturdy if balance is an issue)
2. Get on the floor
A lot of balance training is performed by standing up and reducing your stability (as shown by points 1 and 3) because you’re made to stand and move.
However, an underrated way to improve balance and your overall mobility is to return to the floor. Because being near the floor provides stability and is less threatening for your central nervous system.
The CNS main job is to reduce the threats of physical harm (real or perceived) and being close to the floor reduces the dangers the CNS senses while you’re training balance. Furthermore, if you can’t keep yourself upright on the floor, you haven’t much hope doing it standing either.
Try the tall kneeling and half kneeling positions below and when you start feel comfortable with these, you can perform exercises from there to improve your strength, stability and balance.
A. Tall Kneeling
B. Half Kneeling
C. Tall/half kneeling press
And while you’re down there on the floor, strengthening the neck and head with head nods (or moving your head around) will help with balance also. Because your head houses the vestibular system and having a strong neck/head area improves your overall strength, balance and posture.
It may seem strange but it’s a big bang for your buck exercise.
3. Posture strength training
With all this technology at our fingers tips combined with sitting more and standing less has led to a lot of forward headed (or text neck) rounded shouldered flat butted people. And if your head is in a bad position, the rest of your body will follow.
Good posture is important for balance because by standing up straight, you center your weight over your feet, giving you a stable base of support whether your still or moving. However, your body can compensate if your posture is less than ideal (mine did for years) but this can lead to wasted energy, injuries and compromised breathing.
Nobody has time for that.
Furthermore, if you’re still not convinced about the role of posture and balance when it comes to health, have you ever seen an older adult hunched forward while shuffling his or her feet because of the fear of falling?
I rest my case.
Besides doing all the things you should do for good posture like checking yourself in the mirror, stand up straight and pulling your shoulders down and back, performing a few strength exercises to reinforce good posture is wise. Try these exercises on for size and make them a regular part of your routine.
Why it’s good for posture
A lot us favor one side over the other when we carry bags over our shoulders or stuff in our hands. This can result in tilting our body over to one side to overcompensate. Over time this may cause problems.
Carrying a heavy dumbbell/kettle bell unilaterally can help iron those strength imbalances between your oblique muscles and grip strength.
Pullover with deadbug
Why it’s good for posture
The pullover with deadbug will counter lower back extension (when reaching overhead) plus help stretch the lats while preventing the dreaded rounded-shoulder look. This also doubles as a great core stability exercise.
Balance is one of these things you take for granted until it’s to late. However, by dedicating some time and energy to the exercises above, you’ll remain strong and steady for life.
Need help with balance? Message me here.