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 Atlanta.
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.
It takes about 3 to 4 weeks to see improvements in equilibrium, Huff says, provided that you practice a few times a week for 10 to 20 minutes per session. Any of the pieces of equipment that skier Walsh uses -- a wobble board, physioball, or slide mat -- can be used at home. The equipment is available at stores and web sites selling fitness gear.
Yet Huff and other fitness experts say you don't really need any newfangled gizmos. Learning yoga, which has many poses that require you to stand on one leg, is a low-tech way to better your balance, as are many of the martial arts. Pilates, a regimen of controlled calisthenics-style movements done with the aid of specially designed machines, also promotes balance by strengthening the abdominal and back muscles crucial for keeping the body upright.
It's also simple to insert balance exercises into just about any regular fitness routine. Huff recommends standing on one foot with one eye closed during rest intervals between weight training sets. It's a productive way to use the down time -- and can be exhilarating, too.
Remember that "whee!" feeling you got the first time you rode a bike? Walsh and many others who've added balance exercises to their repertoire have found that when they're teetering on one foot -- wobbling a bit, but managing to stay upright -- for a fleeting moment, they feel like a kid again.
Daryn Eller is a freelance writer in Venice, Calif. Her work has appeared in Health, Fitness, and many other publications.