Let’s face it everything these days is about balance from diets to exercise right down to balancing opposing muscle groups. But the type of balance we’ll discuss in this article is more fundamental. It’s the human function we depend on every day of our lives to get out of bed, to walk, or to play just about any sport – the ability to control your body as it moves through space. Simply defined, it’s the ability to sustain your equilibrium (not fall over) when you’re either stationary or moving.
To maintain balance, you depend on three types of sensory information. The position of your head is perceived by an apparatus in your inner ear. The position of your body is perceived by the visual input of your eyes, which tells you about your environment, and the sensors in your skin, muscles, joints and tendons, which “sense” the position of all of your body’s parts in space (proprioception). When you close your eyes and lift your arm, and you know which way your hand is turned, that’s proprioception; it’s that internal sense of where you are in space.
Let’s say you decide to hike the beautiful hills around Santa Barbara. In the beginning you’d spend a lot of time watching the foot path, just to keep from falling. But after awhile, the trail would require very little of your attention because you’d learn to adjust to the terrain by the “feel” of your feet, thereby increasing your balance through proprioception.
To test your balance, try standing on one leg for 30 seconds and then switch and try it on the other leg. You’ll probably find that you’re better at balancing on one leg and not the other. Then, to recreate the balance required when you encounter an unstable surface, like lumpy grass, try standing on one leg again, but this time use a soft surface such as a foam pad or balance disc. To further spice up the challenge, try performing both of these exercises with your eyes closed. As this sequence suggests, balance training is progressive; once you’re able to maintain stability, new challenges are needed to further adapt.
Movements that take place on one leg at a time, like walking, running and rollerblading, involve constantly losing your balance and then regaining it again. The quicker you can regain it, the safer the movement becomes. If you watch inline skaters, you’ll notice that the better skaters appear as though they never lose their balance, when in fact, they are constantly losing their balance; they just regain it so quickly that no one notices. Those who are cruising along gracefully have learned to maintain their balance while rapidly responding to the changes in their environment, which is the key to success in all of the activities of daily life and sports.