balance is dynamic, alive, and exciting! balance is not a concept of stillness. when walking for example, it is necessary to balance as your rear leg comes off the ground and swings forward. balance involves a chain reaction of the whole body; the feet, legs, pelvis, spine, thorax, arms, heads, and eyes all participate! as you can see, balance is not isolated to one part of the body!
both maintaining balance and losing balance are a chain reaction to all body parts. the common misconception about balance is, if someone falls over, we may think that the problem is that they should have had more control of stillness, but stillness has very little to do with functional balance.
from a functional standpoint, and more importantly, from the standpoint of the information coming into the body on a subconscious level, balance is dynamic and a chain reaction!
there are three systems that integrate, control, and coordinate balance.
vision – what the eyes see
vestibular – information from the inner ear as well as head movement
proprioceptive – information about body awareness and joint position and attention
these three systems work together while balancing, but these three systems will not “turn on” and be activated unless there is also movement. in other words, in order to have balance you must have movement!. this is why the kind of balance training that i teach is balance in motion.
one important variable in balance in motion training is the velocity of the motion. moving faster and quicker, also known as speed and reaction training has an important role in balance training. especially in older adults! it’s not simply about going faster or quicker, the thing about reaction is, it is subconscious and it is instantaneous. this means in order to train speed and reaction the movements also must be as subconscious and instantaneous as possible.
the goal is to be able to automatically (subconsciously) react to the environment in an appropriate time frame, in order to be efficient and effective in the reaction to the stimuli. for example, you have just caught your foot on something, and have tripped, and are in the process of falling, but your body is able to react in a timely manner, subconsciously and instantaneously, and you regain your center of gravity before falling all the way to the floor.
it may come as no surprise to learn that reaction times slow down with age. in addition to slower reaction times, older adults tend to have poorer coordination and reduced force speed of movements. this is due to age related changes in the brain, slowed signals from the brain to nerves and muscles, reduced mobility, and reduced muscle strength, in addition older adults tend to have less accurate awareness of their extremities’ position in space. all these changes will increase the likelihood of falling and reduce one’s ability to make quick judgments if a fall is occurring.
the take away principal is, balance is dynamic and a chain reaction, and your training program should reflect this principal! working in a proprioceptively enriched environment is important for further enhancing coordination. for example, varying the oculovestibular demands of a movement, or standing on different kinds of surfaces. finally, speed and reaction training will further enhance stability, mobility, and strength by enhancing neuromuscular activation.