While I was hiking recently in the beautiful White Mountains along a path covered in colorful fall leaves, I found myself teetering from rock to rock, carefully planning my every step so I would not twist my ankle or step into the river. Quite often I found myself hesitating and misstepping. Then a young 20-something bounded by me, gracefully going from rock to rock without hesitation or fear. So I asked myself, “When did my balance get so bad?”
We get balance by using three different systems: our eyes, ears, muscles and joints.
To define balance, we can simply say it is the ability to stay upright and not fall to the ground. A more precise explanation is that balance is keeping our center of gravity, which is an imaginary spot just behind our belly button, over our base of support, which is our two feet. That is why, when we were kids, it was so hard to pick up the rock in hopscotch when we were standing on only one foot! We were, in essence, making our base of support very small. But let’s break it down even further, because we get balance by using three different systems: our eyes, ears, muscles and joints.
Our eyes not only let us see our surroundings, but they judge distance and determine depth as well as whether something is getting closer or moving away from us. That visual system signal goes directly to our brain and sends out an immediate muscular response that allows us to place our foot ever so gracefully on the rocks in our path. A good example of failure of this system is when we think we are at the bottom step, but we are not, and we jam the floor hard with our foot. Another example is skiing when the light is “flat” and you cannot see the bumps on the trail, which then make you lose your balance.
The inner ear sits deep in the bone on the side our head, just behind the external ear. The inner ear is made up of three fluid-filled canals that detect head motion from side to side and up and down. There are also calcium crystals embedded in the inner ear that detect the pull of gravity. The canals function to keep our vision clear by stabilizing our eyes as our head moves and the crystals tell us our body position in relation to gravity. The inner ear also talks to our muscles constantly allowing us to move smoothly through space. A good example of this system at work is when a person unexpectedly trips and their arm goes out to protect them before they even know they’ve tripped.
Finally, the system that makes the other two systems look good is the muscles and joints. We need strong muscles and flexible joints in order to maintain good balance. We need strong core muscles like our abdominals (aka belly muscles) and gluteals (aka butt muscles). They start the process of holding that center of gravity still so it can be stabilized over your feet. Then your foot and ankle muscles need to be strong enough to keep the your body above them, and if the center of gravity moves outside of your feet you need to be able to take a step to prevent a complete fall to the ground.
Now, back to the hike. It takes a lot of coordination among those three systems to gracefully step from rock to rock. Therefore, any decrease in function in any of these systems can make balance difficult. So, as we age and our vision starts to change, and our joints get stiffer and muscles get weaker, our balance will suffer.
The good news is that these systems can all improve with exercise. This is why yoga and tai chi are such great activities. They focus on strength, flexibility and MOVEMENT. Anything that keeps us moving challenges our balance and, if we add mental tasks like talking, that is even better.
To quote Albert Einstein, “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” So, keep moving, talk while you move and look around while you move to improve your balance.
~ Brigitte Cook, PT