Balance is one of those things that most of us take for granted until we reach ‘old age’ status. The truth is that most people start having balance problems from early adulthood. Normally, anyone who figures out they have a problem with their balance sees it developing over time, sometimes faster and sometimes slower. Transitioning from hard to soft surfaces becomes difficult. You may trip over objects or your own feet more often than usual. Sometimes the issue may be more broad and in-depth, such as an inner ear problem, vertigo or visual acuity. Regardless of the ‘how’, medical professionals should be and usually are focused on the fastest way to gaining some or all of the balance that you have lost.
If our balance is good, it’s a great indicator that our bodies are that much closer to reaching homeostasis or our bodies being in perfect balance. Balance, simply put is our body’s ability to maintain its center of mass over its base of support, i.e. your feet. Helping to control balance is three major components: your vision, proprioception or touch and our vestibular system, which accounts for assistance with motion, equilibrium and spatial orientation. If you notice yourself teetering when standing still, that may be an indicator that one or more of these may be off kilter.
There are a dozen or so tests that physical therapists and physicians use when testing for balance. These is the Range of Motion (ROM) test, where if someone is limited in functioning of major joints, it can increase a person’s risk for falls. It is the PT or physicians job to assess which joints have limited ROM by having the patient perform various stretched to see where the joints may be inhibited.
Another way we test for balance is through muscle strength test that will isolate the targeted muscles functionality as to where to focus treatment.
I’ve talked about proprioception before but in a balance context, PT’s can test formally at each joint by moving it in an up and down motion with the patient’s eyes closed. The PT then asks the patient to tell them which direction their body part was moved. We can also informally test proprioception by removing the firmness of a surface that patient is standing on. Having them stand on foam or a pillow engages that patients’ ability to acknowledge where they are in space and if they are able to hold their position or not.
There’s also test such as the BERG scale, where static balance is assessed by having the patient sit or stand with their eyes closed. If they teeter or start to fall, there may be some inner ear problems, neurological issues, etc. that maybe causing said problems.
So, how do we improve our balance outside of seeing a physical therapist or physician? Well, with most things involving our bodies, there’s some simple exercises that you can incorporate into your daily schedule that will help strengthen those weakened areas of your balance.
Adjust your stance: Incorporate unilateral exercises (one arm or one leg at a time) or changing your stance allows you to work on your balance during your strength training routines.
Do Yoga: Yoga helps you multi-task on a few certain skills all at once. You can improve your balance, strengthen your core and work on being more flexible as well.
Grab A Physio Ball: Among the multitude of exercises you can do, you can also simply sit on it while you watch television or work on the computer. You’ll work on your balance and burn a few more calories.
Nerve Glides: Nerve glides (also known as neural flossing or nerve stretching) are exercises that aim to restore mobilization of our peripheral nerves. When a nerve is injured it won’t be able to glide normally through the surrounding sheath which can cause a sharp pain. Nerves like blood flow and movement. Sometimes you won’t have much pain while taking a walk but you might experience pain with sitting or standing for periods of time. This is because the nerves are sensitive to a decrease in blood flow or being in a static posture. Movement increases blood flow which also helps to reduce any swelling or inflammation that may still be hanging around the nerve even after bones, joints, muscles, and tendons have healed.
As we age, we all start to lose our sense of balance, whether it be small or great. The more we understand why these things are happening, the better we can equip ourselves with the correct tools to gain some of what we lost.
John Schessler is a certified Personal Trainer, Orthopedics & Sports Injury Specialist in Pittsburgh, PA. He is also a Writer, Men’s Life Coach and host of his podcast, “ManAlive!” available on Apple Podcasts. Want to drop me a line? Email me at email@example.com
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