Our sense of balance is something most of us take for granted. Behind the scenes, three complex systems work together to keep us upright.
- Visual: The eyes supply information to the brain about the objects surrounding the body in the physical environment. To better understand the role of this system, try balancing on one leg with the eyes open and then again with the eyes closed.
- Auditory: Our inner ears contain a series of canals filled with fluid and fine, hair-like sensors. These monitor the position of the head in relation to gravity (in an elevator or airplane) and linear space (in an automobile).
- Proprioceptive: Sensory nerves in the muscles, tendons and joints provide awareness of the body’s posture and position in space. For instance, the ankles, knees and hips help us to recover after tripping on a crack in the sidewalk.
It is important to note that these three systems rely upon the core muscles as well as the joints, particularly the hip, knee, and ankle, to perform the physical adjustments required to maintain balance.
The consequences of suffering a fall can last a lifetime and affect not only individuals, but families, workplaces and communities. A fracture can bring pain, financial strain, loss of mobility, and many challenges that come with adapting to new daily routines.
- Build strength and flexibility through regular exercise (see below.) This is particularly important for those with injuries in their past who avoid exercise due to their fear of falling. This decreased mobility further weakens muscles and bones.
- Be aware of tripping hazards such as pets, area rugs, electrical cords, wet surfaces and objects on stairways.
- Address unsafe conditions in the home or workplace such as inadequate lighting, open drawers, cabinet doors and furniture obstructing walking pathways.
- Correct any vision/hearing issues, which can impact reaction time.
- Use caution with medications that can interact, causing loss of balance.
EXERCISES TO IMPROVE BALANCE
Just like any other physical activity, balance can be improved through building strength, flexibility, mental focus and overall body awareness. Simple exercises like these can be safely practiced daily at home or the office.
First, start with the Seated Abdominal Crunch.
- Sit with a straight back and ankles below the knees.
- Inhale and lift arms up and out to the side like a goal post or the arms of a cactus.
- Lift the left foot 12” off floor.
- Exhale and bring right elbow down toward left knee, maintaining a straight back.
- Switch sides
Next, take a break and stand up. We love practicing the Calf Raise to improve balance, stretch the calves, and strengthen the arches of the feet. It’s also an effective foot massage! Over time, try this exercise without the chair, or for an added challenge, with the eyes closed.
Now you’re ready to try Tree Pose.
- Use a wall or chair if need be.
- Put all your weight on the right foot.
- Lift your left leg with a bent knee, opening your knee out to the right.
- Place the sole of your foot inside the right leg above or below knee.
- Bring first one palm up at heart center, and then if you feel steady, try pressing both hands together. Find a place to gaze that is not moving.
- Switch Sides.
We love practicing Tree Pose outside, grounding down through the standing foot in order to actively rise through the chest and uplifted arms, while pulling the belly up and in. Check out our Tree Pose video– shot at the Philadelphia Navy Yard!
BALANCE AND EVERYDAY ACTIVITIES
Active attention to improving our balance can be easily integrated into daily routines and activities. Remember that both the posture and breath are closely tied to our sense of balance. Many exercises focused on improving posture and breath will also improve balance. Refer to the Posture and Breath pages for more details.
- Keep Moving! Find opportunities to integrate several short walks into the day. Even basic movement is key to maintaining balance, as it keeps the muscles and bones strong while also relieving stress and anxiety.
- Strengthen the Core While Sitting: Squeeze a yoga block or folded pillow between the thighs while working at your desk, watching TV or speaking on the phone. The inner thigh and hip muscles are critical for stability when standing, walking or running.
The muscles of our core provide the stable foundation for all our daily activities, from brushing our teeth to lifting weights at the gym. “It doesn’t matter how strong your arms and legs are if the muscles they’re attached to aren’t equally as strong.” (Steven Ehasz, MES, CSCS). Pictured here are the stabilizing hip and abdominal muscles: Psoas, left, and Rectus Abdominus, right.
Ease of movement and injury prevention are two critical factors in maximizing our quality of life. It’s never too late to begin improving your balance!