I was reflecting the other day on how important balance is in our lives. Work/life balance, financial balance, nutritional balance – they are all things we spend much of our lives trying to achieve. And quite rightly. They are crucial to our overall wellbeing.
The same is true for our physical balance. It is interwoven into virtually every movement we make but is mostly taken for granted. Walking on uneven surfaces, climbing stairs, and getting in and out of bed are obvious examples of physical balance requirement. If our balance is impaired such activities can be tiring, daunting and sometimes dangerous. Dizziness, vertigo, hearing and vision problems, difficulty with concentration, and memory can all be consequences of poor physical balance. Balance is the framework which enables us to go about our active daily lives with confidence and it is immeasurably precious. So we need to nurture it.
The first step is to understand what contributes to physical balance.
Muscular strength and joint flexibility.
We frequently talk about core strength during our Nordic walking classes - its importance and how to improve it. By ‘core’ we are referring to the deep muscular belt around our middle which supports and protects our spine and enables us to move our limbs around without being de-stabilised. Core strength is vital for good balance and is one of the key benefits we get from Nordic walking.
However it’s not just our core. All our muscles contribute to balance because their job is to support and move us. Getting in and out of a car for instance requires strong leg muscles and stable but flexible joints (as you're standing on one leg, doing a single leg squat and an ankle movement) as well as good core strength for twisting and turning. The stronger those muscles are and the more flexible our joints the better able we are to hold stable positions and react to sudden changes in the environment we are moving through (such as tripping on a kerb and not falling over).
Our muscular strength and joint flexibility decreases as we age so we have to work increasingly hard to keep it toned and responsive. It’s why the government’s physical activity guidelines for those aged 65 and over include muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms).
It’s also another reason why Nordic walking is such a great exercise – it’s a total body workout, engaging over 90% of our muscles. Plus it keeps our ankle and other joints strong and mobile.
Maintaining balance also depends on information received by the brain from three sensory systems:
- Vision. Our sight enables us to perceive direction and motion and to anticipate what is coming up and how to respond to it.
- Proprioception. This is what tells our brain where our body parts are and what they are doing without our having to look. The brain receives messages from tiny receptors located in muscles, tendons and ligaments that surround joints.
- Vestibular system in the inner ear. This monitors motion, equilibrium and spatial orientation and is the cause of dizziness if not working properly.
All three of these information sources send signals to the brain in the form of nerve impulses from special nerve endings called sensory receptors. If any of these systems are not functioning properly, we can lose our balance even while just walking or standing up.
Injury, disease and certain drugs can affect one or more of these components. But age also takes its toll. Part of the aging process in humans not only includes the gradual loss of muscle strength, but vision, sensory perception and hearing - all things that contribute to our ability to balance – also decline with age. The NHS estimates that around one in three adults over 65 who live at home will have at least one fall a year, and about half of these will have more frequent falls. This will be due to a number of reasons, but balance is a key factor.
The good news is that balance can be worked on. And because it is crucial to our health and fitness we have decided to add it to our ‘area of focus’ weekly rotation. We will be working on a whole series of exercises to entertain, challenge and most importantly improve your balance, agility and reaction time and will introduce this topic into our rota after our next instructor training session in a month or so. In the meantime here are a few balance tests for you to try:
- First, test your balance by seeing how long you can stand on one foot with your eyes closed. Most people over 40 can't go past 15 seconds. Even if you can, try to improve your time.
- Without holding onto anything, rise up on your toes 10 times. Repeat with eyes shut.
- Stand on one leg, bending the other knee slightly for 10 to 15 seconds; switch legs and repeat 10 times. Then do again with your eyes closed.
- Walk a straight line, placing the heel of one foot directly in front of the toes of the other foot.
Here’s to yet more fitness and fun!