Can I Improve My Balance?
By Matthew Bernier, MPT
"Can I improve my balance?"
Absolutely, but to improve your balance, you must first understand what systems govern balance or proprioception. Your vision, the receptors of you inner ear, and the receptors in all your joints, and your proprioceptors all play a part in balance as well as stability. The system we rely on most often to tell our brain where we are in space is our vision. Our eyes give us feedback to our spatial awareness. This is why it is easier to hold your balance on one leg if you stare at one spot on the wall. You are able to get constant visual feedback on your stability because you have fixed your gaze on one spot compared to trying to balance on one leg and scanning the room from one side to the other.
The second system governing our balance is our proprioceptors. All of our joints have receptors that send signals to the brain to tell it where that joint is in space. The brain in turn sends signals to the muscles so they contract in order to adjust the joint position and remain standing. When you are balancing on one leg you can see your ankle muscles making small adjustments with small contractions to hold your balance. That is an example of the proprioceptors hard at work.
The final system governing your balance is the inner ear or the vestibular system. Feedback from inner ear helps to regulate your equilibrium and keep you stable. An example of how your equilibrium can affect you is when you are feeling seasick. The feeling of sea sickness from standing on a rocking boat in choppy water is due to the lack of good feedback to the brain from the inner ear. The constant motion of the boat does not allow the vestibular system to give your brain good signals as to where your center of gravity is.
So with this knowledge, how do you improve your balance? To improve balance, you must challenge your stability. If you feel completely comfortable or steady in a position, you are not challenging your balance. You must be just outside of your comfort zone. For example, for someone that is able to stand on one leg and stare at a spot on the wall and balance for 30 seconds, he or she must remove or challenge a system that governs his or her balance. The simplest way to start is by standing on something unstable such as a pillow or cushion. These items will challenge the proprioceptors by not allowing the constant feedback from the joint because the joints are always moving due to the unstable surface you are standing on.
Once this is mastered, you could move on to challenging the vestibular system, by constantly moving your head and changing your field of vision. Try walking a straight line heel to toe or stand on 1 leg, but don’t stare straight ahead, turn you head from left to right fast enough not to be able to focus on a spot. It is much harder to walk that line or hold your balance on one leg.
Once this is mastered, the final challenge is to remove your visual feedback. We rely significantly on our vision for balance. Try standing on one leg and close your eyes. This is significantly harder than balancing with eyes open.
These principles do not have to be done individually once mastered. You can combine these principles to have exceptional balance by challenging more than one system at a time. An example of this may be standing on a cushion on one leg with your eyes closed and trying to hold for 30 seconds or walking on a foam mat heel to toe with turning your head form left to right rapidly.
Balance can always be improved and as we age it does diminish. In order to slow that process you must challenge your proprioception. Once you find an initial position that challenges you, you can apply these principles to improve you balance over time.
Matthew Bernier holds a Master's of Physical Therapy and practices in The Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle care center.