Shelly Greenfield: Establishing better balance important for all ages

Maintaining one's balance (or equilibrium, physical stability, or steadiness) is a challenge that we face at all stages of our lives.

Your balance may be "off" for a number of reasons, including illness, injury, poor posture, muscle imbalances, weak core, or issues related to aging.

Maintaining your balance is primarily coordinated by three internal systems: the vestibular system (or the inner ear), in which fluid acts like a carpenter's level; the proprioceptive system which uses sensory nerves in the muscles; tendons and joints to give you posture and spatial awareness; and the visual system which signals your brain about your body's position in relation to your surroundings.

Whether you are an athlete, new to fitness, elderly, or somewhere in between, these systems must function together to supply information for optimal performance.

I was reminded of this while watching a Honkers game this past week. If you have ever seen the entertaining challenges that spectators participate in between innings, you know what I mean. Putting your forehead on the handle a baseball bat, and running in circles 10 times will confuse every one of these internal systems.


Guess what happens when they try to run to third base — face plant on the ground. Of course that's all in good fun, but for anyone suffering from Menieres Disease or other inner-ear disorders, the affect may be the same.

For athletes or active adults with past ankle or knee injuries, it may be difficult for them to balance on that leg versus the other. Proprioceptors in that area may have been damaged, but the good news is that with retraining exercises, these receptors can be easily retrained. In performing familiar exercises such as lunges on a foam pad, or a balance board, you can strengthen those areas and challenge all three balance centers.

If you have not suffered past injuries but feel the need to challenge yourself for better balance, change up your usual training. Change your base of support by using balance boards/pads, sit/lay on a ball, or narrow your stance. If you are ready to proceed to a more challenging level, try your move on one leg! A one-leg stand while performing biceps curls can be challenging, as can one-leg squats if you are feeling really agile. One final challenge can be to close your eyes and perform your usual moves.

For young athletes, developing basic coordination skills that will enhance athletic ability is best between ages 7-14. Research shows that younger athletes who learn to master the elements associated with good coordination (balance, rhythm, spatial awareness, reaction, etc.) are far better off than athletes who are not exposed to this kind of exercise stimulation until advanced ages.

Youth training programs that include multi-directional forms of running, jumping, skipping, single-leg balance games, mirroring exercises, ladders, balance moves, etc., are basic to this type of training.

The elderly may face impairments in all three of these areas, making balance very challenging. Including balance exercises in regular training is beneficial, but training programs that include multi-task training such as heel-toe walking with moving your head side to side is better for fall prevention. Activities of daily living usually include several simultaneous activities or while distracted, so a well-designed program should feature concurrent performance of balance exercises and additional tasks.

No matter where you fit in on the fitness continuum, there are always new ways to challenge your balance for optimal performance and injury prevention.

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