Don't Get Caught Off Balance
Exercises Add Equilibrium
Sept. 13, 2001 -- As an avid skier who had spent a lot of time
perched atop two skinny sticks, Matt Walsh thought he knew a thing or two about
balance. But it wasn't until he began incorporating equilibrium exercises into
his fitness routine that he learned he could actually get better at it.
The 35-year-old San Franciscan practices an assortment of
balance moves several times a week: kneeling on a beach-ball-like
"physioball," sliding side to side on a slide mat, and balancing on a
skateboard-sized teeter-totter called a wobble board. The effort has paid off
not only on the slopes, but in Walsh's everyday life. "It gives me a
feeling of power and confidence," he says. "I know that if I, say, slip
on a slick sidewalk, I'm going to be able to recover without injury."
Balance training is getting increased attention from fitness
professionals these days, though it's not a big fad quite yet. "I call it
the Rodney Dangerfield of fitness," says Dale Huff, a St. Louis exercise
physiologist and spokesman for the American Council on Exercise. "It used
to be flexibility that didn't get any respect until we pushed people to pay
attention to it. Now it's balance."
Save for the odd pratfall artist like Kramer on TV's
"Seinfeld," few of us are obviously equilibrium-impaired. Yet the
average person's sense of balance begins to decline around age 25, says Steven
L. Wolf, MD, a rehabilitation medicine specialist at Emory University in
Balance exercises can stem this decline, proponents say,
helping to improve sports performance as well as mundane moves. "The
exercises can help make it easier to do things like carrying a bag of groceries
and a child up the stairs at the same time," says Elizabeth Larkam, an
instructor in the department of exercise and sports science at the University
of San Francisco. "People who've had balance training also feel more
graceful and have better posture."
How does this transformation happen? Our sense of balance is
primarily determined by three elements working in concert: vision, the inner
ear, and proprioceptors -- sensory receptors located in the muscles, tendons,
and joints that are sensitive to stretching, tension, and pressure. By rapidly
relaying information to the conscious and subconscious nervous system,
proprioceptors give us a sense of where our bodies are in space. Balance
exercises primarily challenge the proprioceptor system. For instance, during
one of the exercises developed by Elizabeth Larkam, students lie on top of
long, narrow foam cylinders, then roll an inch or two to each side several
times, sometimes with their eyes closed. "When you can't rely on your
vision, your proprioceptive skills become more highly developed," she says.
By practicing this way, she says, you learn to react more quickly and
efficiently when you get thrown off balance.