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.
Your balance may be "off," says Green, for a number of reasons, including illness, injury, poor posture, muscle imbalances, or a weak core.
The popularity of balance or core training can be seen in health clubs across the country, says Bill Howland, director of research for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association in Boston. "The majority of clubs and fitness centers now offer some form of balance training," says Howland, who reiterates that the idea behind this activity is not new, but like yoga, seems to have found a new popularity.
"As we're getting older, we're becoming less concerned with sculpting our body, and more concerned with staying active and functional," says Howland. "With core training, your joints and muscles work in tandem, just the way they do in real life when, for example, you have to balance yourself while walking upstairs with bags of groceries in your arms."
Balance aids, such as the Bosu Balance Trainer -- a vinyl dome that resembles a ball cut in half, with one side being flat and the other functioning as a platform on which to perform exercises such as push-ups and crunches -- requires a collaborative effort of major muscle groups, says Norris Tomlinson, national director of group exercise for Bally Total Fitness. With the Bosu ball, says Tomlinson, you can get the benefits of cardiovascular training, strength training, and balance training. "It's a much more efficient way of working out," he says.
You can buy balance balls and boards for home use, but Steven Ehasz suggests that it's better to work with a qualified trainer -- at least at first -- who can determine where your muscle imbalances are and plan a routine that addresses your specific weaknesses.
While boards and balls are popular and may liven up your workout routine, you can work on your balance and core strength on your own, with no apparatus at all. Simple yoga poses, such as the tree pose, can help improve balance and stability, says Leigh Crews, who adds that when practicing balance positions, remember to change the direction that you look in order to increase the challenge to your balance. You can also challenge your balance by standing on one foot and closing your eyes.
Exercises such as squats, lunges, step-ups for the lower body, and standing rows, shoulder presses, and other standing exercises for the upper body will also help develop balance, says Gerry Green, in addition to helping improve your posture.
Once you get started with balance training, says IHRSA's Bill Howland, you'll be surprised at how quickly you take to it. "We were all doing a lot of these moves in grade-school phys ed," he says. "This is not rocket science. It's a simple, proven, and time-honored regimen."
Originally published April 30, 2003.
Medically updated April 15, 2004.