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Balance: Importance of getting steady on your feet

Do you walk to get around? If the answer is yes, then you need to know more about balance. Balance is a necessary component of walking; with each step you balance momentarily on only one leg.

Do you walk to get around? If the answer is yes, then you need to know more about balance.

Balance is a necessary component of walking; with each step you balance momentarily on only one leg. All of us have experienced times when our balance wasn't good enough to keep us from tripping over something. And, unless you've had a bout of prolonged dizziness or loss of equilibrium, an injury to your legs, a stroke or any other problem that strips you of your balance, you probably haven't thought twice about how you keep steady on your feet.

Most of the rehabilitation programs I put together for my patients involve activities to improve balance. Balance is a component of health that you must not overlook; without it, all of the strengthening and exercise in the world won't help you a bit.

In order to have good balance, you rely on the information given to your brain from three main body systems: your inner ear/equilibrium, the receptors in your muscles, and your vision. Taking away one of these systems has a dramatic effect on your ability to balance. Don't believe me? Test it out with the single leg balance test. First, try with your eyes open, and then try with your eyes closed. It is a lot harder with your eyes closed because your brain has one-third less information; only your inner ear and the receptors in your muscles are able to convey information.

As children, we develop balance through various play activities and we continue to improve with practice (climbing trees, walking on narrow beams, walking on unsteady surfaces, sports, etc.) As adults, we seldom think about balance and rarely practice it. When was the last time you walked on a balance beam or tried balancing on one leg? If you do attempt balancing on one leg, proceed with caution because you will most likely not be able to balance for more than a few seconds. In theory, you should be able to hold this position much longer than that, yet if you are like most of my patients, you are probably a bit rusty at this skill!

But here's the good news — balance can improve pretty quickly if you work at it. Here's a basic balance exercise you can try: Stand with your feet in heel to toe position (termed tandem) and attempt to balance with your eyes open for 30 seconds.  Progress to adding continuous head turns (side to side, up and down) with your eyes open. If you can maintain your balance position, then try it with your eyes closed. If successful with your eyes closed, try all of these variations on just one leg.

Also, knowing where your body is in space, termed proprioception, is a critical part of balance training. This allows your body to make quick adjustments to prevent an injury. For example, you are walking along and trip on a crack in the sidewalk that you didn't see. When you have good proprioception, your ankle, knee and hip muscles react quickly enough to save you from twisting your ankle and falling. Poor proprioceptive sense will leave you falling to the ground in milliseconds. Everyone, from elite athletes to the elderly, can benefit from proprioception training.

With normal aging, our senses are not as sharp and balance often becomes problematic; you just may not be aware of it yet. When balance begins to interfere with your daily routine at home or out of the house, then you should definitely seek help. Or, if you are looking to increase your general fitness and performance, balance and proprioception training can take you to the next level.

Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.