“Life is a balance between holding on and letting go.” Rumi
Ok, so that quote is not exactly about the physical art of balancing, but being able to ‘let go’ of things and stay balanced is actually more important than you might think.
Even in daily life, it’s amazing how many times we choose, unconsciously, to decrease the amount we need to balance. How often do you hold on to the bannister when climbing the stairs or put a hand on your front knee when pushing up from the ground, or use your arms to push out of a chair or stand up out of bed? These movements often become automatic. More noticeably how often do you choose to sit down to tie your shoe laces, or find yourself holding on to furniture when putting trousers on, or even sitting down to put them on?
The body will always take the path of least resistance as it is programmed to do from days where survival was much tougher, to preserve vital energy. But this is rarely the case nowadays. Noticing how you move throughout your day is the key to starting to bring your awareness to how you normally move and what movement habits you have created over the years.
How can our ability to balance affect us?
It’s something we take for granted, but as we age the ability to balance well declines and, as Caroline Williams wrote in her recent article, ‘The balancing act’ in the New Scientist, falling is the 2nd biggest cause of accidental death after traffic accidents and the number of falls, even when taking into account an ageing and growing population, is on the increase. If we wear seatbelts in cars, then maybe should also stop taking our ability to balance for granted and also put in some preventative measures!
As humans stand on two feet, we are balancing even just to stand up. With our centre of gravity so far from the ground and with the weight of our torso and head above it, just to hold ourselves upright means all the balancing systems have to work together and work well.
If we are out of alignment, our balance is constantly being challenged and our muscles, ligaments and joints are under unnecessary strain, so even improving our posture when standing helps both our balance and how well we move.
The more concerning issue is when we notice our balance declining, often with age. This is a clear sign that we need to start training our balancing systems, to reverse the decline as far as possible and therefore help protect ourselves against falls.
Which systems create balance in our bodies?
The conscious systems the body uses are visual and proprioceptive (i.e. the body perceiving its own position in space through touch) and the unconscious vestibular system in the inner ear. This last system gives the biggest contribution to sense of balance and spatial orientation needed for coordinating movement with balance and this is key as most balancing issues happen when we are in motion.
The messages go mainly to our feet, ankles and leg muscles to help us maintain balance. The core is then engaged afterwards. To train these systems we need to challenge them.
When should you start - isn’t this just an issue for old people?
Ideally we should train our balance as a preventative measure, rather than by the time we’ve noticed it becoming an issue.
Most forms of exercise include a level of balance challenge by the positions and movements they include, but few actually train the specific skill of balance.
Any form of movement is going to help towards balance training, but if we don’t create the environment for more challenging balance situations, we will be unable to improve and in particular be able to rely on it in all situations.
How good is your balance? Test yourself!
To start with, check your current balancing ability. In the same fascinating article, Caroline Williams cites Dawn Skelton of Glasgow Caledonian University as saying that if you can’t stand on one leg with your eyes closed for 30 seconds then you should start training your balance straight away. Go on, give it a try and you might surprise yourself!
How to start training your balance
Start with calf raises where you stand up on your tip toes and try to keep your ankles still. Add on to this movement by incorporating arm movements overhead (increasing the challenge by moving the centre of gravity). Once you feel accomplished at this, start to move through the legs, by bending the knees to crouch down, still balancing on the balls of your feet alone.
The next thing is to take one foot off the ground with the other flat on the floor. I teach ‘toe-touching clocks’ where you only lightly touch the ground with the toes of one leg whilst balancing through the other leg, moving around the numbers of the clock and keep the leg airborne for as long as possible. This is first completed with an upright torso, however we then complicate things by instead of touching with the airborne leg, we lean down and touch the ground with our hands - even picking up and replacing objects in different places.
These static movements are a great place to start, but to prevent falling whilst walking, we need to have good balance control whilst moving - and that’s where ‘in-line’ walking comes in. By purposefully narrowing our base of support, we have to strongly recruit the muscles of the legs to help us avoid falling.
You can try this at home, by simply putting one foot in front of the other on a line on the ground, preferably one that you can feel with the sole of the foot so you don’t look down. The edge of a yoga mat, a belt or a measuring tape will all be ample when you first get started.
Once this becomes easy, I would then suggest investing (about £5) in a 2’x4’ plank from your local DIY shop. This makes the perfect beam to play with your balance. Then there are numerous ways to train our balancing movements - we cover balancing movements in both my Natural Mobility and Essential Skills classes at different levels.
A few technique tips for balance training
Keep your body stacked well, or ‘Posture up’ as Erwan le Corre (founder of MovNat) says in his training videos, and this includes your head. If you need to look down, do so with your eyes, not your head.
Touch your toe down before your heel so that you can receive sensory feedback in time for your body to make the necessary adjustments.
Keep your feet inline with each other and not hanging off the sides of whatever you are balancing, or at an angle - this helps balance, but also improves alignment of the legs.
Go at a speed you can control and then stop to right yourself when you feel yourself losing control.
Relax your upper body so that you are using selective tension in your lower body only - aid this relaxation by nice, deep belly breathing (rather than tense chest breathing).
Instead of throwing out your arms when you go off balance (which challenges your centre of gravity even more), try to use the free leg and torso to counter-balance and right yourself
Use visualisations to help you do your best - pretend there is hot lava under the thing you’re balancing on, or that it’s far higher than it actually is. This aids the already high level of mindfulness you need to balance well. When you’re balancing, you have to be ‘in the zone’ - one reason I love practising!
How important is balance training?
The reason balancing is becoming an endangered movement is because of the modern world - created for convenience and to keep us ‘safe’, but in so doing reducing the daily balance challenges our bodies need. Examples are flat floors in houses, flat pavements, flat roads and more.
It’s only when we get out in nature that we constantly challenge our balance by going off the beaten path, uphill, downhill and on challenging terrain, like slippy mud, wet grass, mossy logs and raised tree roots. But this is one of the best things you can do to train your balance - so hill walking, as Caroline Williams recommends in her article, is one of the best things you can do.
How can I add in balance practise when I’m not training or hill walking?
Here I refer back to the first section about the opportunities we miss every day to stack in just a little bit more balance practise. ‘Little and often’, spread throughout the day is an easy way to stack in practise when you’re already doing other things. Try the following:
Let go of the bannister when climbing the stairs
When pushing up from kneeling on the ground don’t lean on your front knee - instead distribute your weight evenly between front and back feet (back foot heel raised) and then push straight up which uses the hips, not the spine or knees
Try not to use your arms to push out of a chair or stand up out of bed
Stand to tie your shoe laces
Stand to put your trousers on and try to increase the amount of time you are on one leg whilst doing so - and don’t forget to alternate which leg you put on first
When you need to lean down to pick up an object - try it on one leg
And when you’re out walking and you see a fallen log - go and balance along it for fun!
Natural movement training makes us adaptable and capable for real world situations. Don’t have a wobble - be ready for whatever the world throws at you!