We talk about balance an awful lot within the health and well-being world.
A healthy work/life balance. A balanced diet. A mind and body balance. A balanced recovery/work ration. Working our muscles in a balanced way. All important aspects of a healthy life.
But today I want to talk about the physical act of balancing in all of it’s many guises.
For me a daily balance practice has become a hugely important part of my day and something that I incorporate into all of my clients’ programmes in some way, shape or form. Sometimes it’s so subtle that they don’t realise I’ve included it, other times the constant falling over, ‘laughing ’til you pee’ hilarity makes it pretty obvious.
Why is balance so important?
Well the most obvious use of good balance is in the reduction of us falling flat on our faces. There seems to be a magical age where falling over ceases to be funny and becomes the most embarrassing act in an adults life. So much so that even with an extreme break to the forearm, we gaily jump up, exclaiming “I’m fine! I’m fine!”, do that jaunty little skip until we are out of sight to lick our wounds that are equal parts searing agony and diabolical humiliation.
Kids fall over all the time. This is how they learn to balance in the first place. Once we can stand, we move, we climb, we explore, we dare. But it all starts with balance.
Like any skill we learn when we are younger, if we stop practising them we slowly lose the ability. Balance is no different.
Here are some stats:
30% of people aged 65 and over will fall at least once a year. For those aged 80 and over this goes up to 50%. (gov.uk)
Falls are the most common cause of injury related deaths in people over the age of 75 with over 5,000 older people dying as a result of a fall in 2017, a 70% increase on the numbers in 2010. (ageuk.org.uk)
The forecast for this years census will take us to nearly 11 MILLION people over the age of 65, in England alone. That’s 3.3 million people falling badly enough for it to become a statistic!
There are many reasons why a person might fall from muscle weakness, poor internal balance systems, use of medicines or other substances, various illnesses, vision issues, to environmental hazards. Some things are out of our direct control, others need assistance to remedy, and for others we can make subtle changes ourselves to improve our chances.
Above is the government guide to improving balance. All good valid tools that will undoubtedly help. But why not include actual balancing? If you want to get better at something it makes sense to do the said thing.
We rely on a 3 pronged system for balance:
- The Vestibule system – This is all the clever gear that resides in our inner ear that gives feedback on gravity, linear movement and rotation. This is why you might feel dizzy if you have an ear infection.
- The Visual System – Our eyes are giving us information about how we are oriented to the rest of the world, how we are oriented to the horizon or surrounding features etc. This is why we feel like we are moving when the adjacent train starts to move but we are stationary.
- The Proprioceptive System – The nerves in our skin, muscles and joints are gathering details about pressure and how the body is stacked. Pressure at the front part of our soles, for example, would tell us that we are either leaning forward or on an uphill gradient.
This last one is why I suggest that all the foot-based exercises should be done naked, from the ankle down (but feel free to go the whole hog should public decency allow). Shoes will be the equivalent of wearing a blindfold over your eyes.
“It’s all about balance, do you see? Balance is the trick. Keep the balance and – ” she stopped. “You’ve ridden on a seesaw? One end goes up, one end goes down. But the bit in the middle, that stays where it is. Upness and downness go right through it. Don’t matter how high or low the ends go, it keeps the balance.” She sniffed. “Magic is mostly movin’ stuff around.”Granny Weatherwax
What we do in the physical world is often mirrored in our mental and emotional world, and vice versa.
When I take part in my daily balance practice I feel it echo through the other aspects of my life.
Why balance? Every child instinctively knows why. Above everything else, it is super fun. Kids don’t care what’s ‘proper’, they don’t care what people think, they don’t care that you ‘shouldn’t’, and neither should you. And there are bags of other benefits to including a balance practice into your life:
It is great for injury prevention. Regular balance work has been shown to reduce your risk of sprains by up to 40%. For the elderly, balance work can help avoid falls, the main cause of morbidity and disability in this group.
It improves postural stability after a stroke.
It works the entire body. All those micro movements are great for activating our stabilisation muscle that often get overlooked.
Balancing has been shown to improve cognitive function.
Increases reaction times, agility, and coordination.
When performed barefoot or in minimalist shoes it’s a great way to work and awaken your feet.
You can do it anywhere, anytime, for free.
It’s a beautiful form of mindfulness.
And did I mention that it’s great fun?
How to add a balance practice into your day
Now I am aware that we are all built differently, with different abilities. There is no one size fits all in any aspect of life. If any of these tips don’t work for you, don’t give up, there will be a balance practice for you.
The simplest practice that I use is to simply stand on 1 foot. Kick off your shoes and socks, lift one foot off the ground and see how long you can hold it. Repeat on the other side. If this feels too difficult stay close to a wall or solid object and use your hands. As you get better, use your hands less.
To make it harder, turn your head from side to side (reducing the visual system and vestibule system slightly). Harder again is to close your eyes. Considering that we spend 40% of our time on just one leg when walking it makes sense to spend some time here.
I do this whilst brushing my teeth.
If you are chair bound (as well as everyone else) you could try balancing a book on your head to work those stabilising muscles in the core and neck, or one of my favourite moving meditation practices, balance an ethically sourced peacock feather on your finger, nose or forehead etc.
For an easy locomotive practice, simply walk along a line on the floor as if you were on a tight rope.
Upping your balance game
Once you feel comfortable with the practices above you can start to add a little more ‘risk’. The easiest way is to increase the height of the line you are walking. Enter the balance beam.
Whilst you can buy some truly lovely, purpose built beams, they are actually very easy to make. The simplest being the 2X4 beam.
Cheap as chips and often free for smaller off-cuts, it’s a great DIY option that needs no actual ‘doing’. A 2ft length is fine for stationary work, but a bit longer is better for walking up and down the beam.
Next up is a section of wooden hand rail. The rounded top and narrower profile make traversing this a little more difficult. £10-15 from the builders merchant for a 4.8m length. I have a long piece in the gym, a 4ft piece in my kitchen, and a 2ft bit at my stand up desk.
Then we have the round pole or log. Pretty easy to find for free, however be aware that you will need to anchor it somehow to stop in from rolling when you use it, at least at first.
I then have a scaffold pole on two 90 degree connectors. The connectors stop it rolling and raise height a little. I also add some shorter lengths of pole to the connectors as legs to further raise the height. I can also have different length legs to create an inclined beam. Scaffold poles are often free from building sites when they are a bit bent. The connectors cost lest than £10 each.
All of these types of beams can of course be found out in the natural and urban environment for free. Go use them. When people stare it’s because they are in awe of you.
So we have added a little height to make it more difficult. Next we can add some instability. This will make our balancing skills become even more reactive.
The humble gym ball is a great balance tool, but in this case we use our bums rather than our feet. A soft floor is good for this one as at first you’ll probably go flying. Sit on it, lift your feet of the ground and try not to slam into the floor. The easiest way is to have both your hands and your feet in contact with the ball to help ‘guide’ it’s movements. Once you’ve got the hang of that remove your hands, then your feet. This is sooo much fun!
We then have the wobble board. There are a number of types and they are great to have around. Once you feel comfortable standing on this you can try to squat or try other exercises. I am literally standing on one as I type this post. It’s a great way to get some extra movement into my day.
The next step up would be something like an Indo Board.
This one is much more difficult and capacity for face-planting is greatly increased. My plan is to make a DIY version of this in the summer, after I take out a dental plan.
And finally, my favourite – The Slackline.
This brings instability, height and the very real danger of twanging a testicle. And it’s insanely addictive. I am terrible at it but love the pure sense of mindfulness and focus that comes with balance work.
For me, balance is a vital part of my health journey. I get extra movement, increased stability, greater proprioception, and a huge sense of focus. It makes all my other endeavours easier, and will hopefully make me harder to kill in the long run.
So screw what anyone says, go out there and find something to balance on. Bonus points if you end up with an ASBO.