Having a hard time with balance? You need to strengthen your "core" muscles, and core training is sweeping the nation.
Having a hard time lugging those groceries up the stairs? Feeling a bit wobbly when you get in and out of the shower? If you're slowly losing your balance and coordination, don't be surprised. It happens to all of us as we get older. But the latest fitness trend sweeping health clubs across the country just may help you keep your feet on the ground -- literally.
Balance, or core training, is not new, says Kevin Steele, PhD, an exercise physiologist and vice president of sports and marketing for 24 Hour Fitness, headquartered in San Ramon, Calif. "Physical therapists and athletic trainers have used these techniques for years." Now, though, gym rats everywhere are bouncing and wobbling their way to a stronger "core" -- as the muscles that surround your trunk are called. Without strong trunk muscles, you're more likely to suffer from chronic back pain, lose your balance and fall, or be more prone to injury when doing other workout routines.
"Your core is the essence of everything you do, from your day-to-day activities, to your athletic pursuits," says Steven Ehasz, MES, CSCS, exercise physiologist and wellness coordinator for the University of Maryland Medical System. "It doesn't matter how strong your arms and legs are if the muscles they're attached to aren't equally as strong."
A strong core is also responsible for your sense of balance. "Balance not only requires equilibrium, but also good stability of the core muscles and the joints, particularly the hip, knee, and ankle," says Leigh Crews, spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. There are several ways to address balance and stability training, says Crews, including balance boards, stability balls, the Reebok Core Board, Bosu (which stands for "both sides up") balls, as well as yoga, and other forms of mind-body training and martial arts, such as Pilates and tai chi.
Maintaining one's balance (or equilibrium, physical stability, or steadiness), is primarily coordinated by three systems, explains Gerry Green, director of the Fitness Center at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. The first is the vestibular or auditory system, located in the inner ear, which acts like a "carpenter's balance" to keep you level. The second balance coordinator is the proprioceptive system, which uses sensory nerves called proprioceptors that are located in the muscles, tendons, and joints. They give signals to the central nervous system, which gives you a kinesthetic sense, or an awareness of your body posture and spatial awareness. And finally, there is the visual system, which sends visual signals from the eyes to the brain about your body's position in relation to its surroundings.