Balance is something that most people are born with and develop in the first few years of life. But as we age we begin to lose it – hence, increasing fall risks among the elderly. BUT, it is never too late to start working on your balance – it can be improved upon at all ages of life. Let’s start by talking about what comprises ‘balance.’
The four primary components of good balance are:
1) Proprioception (awareness in space) – coordination b/t sensation and orientation to upright
2) Vestibular system in the ear – controls equilibrium, balance, and orientation to up
4) Strength – trunk, hip, ankle
Some people are born with great balance and others work hard to develop some of the components above to become excellent at balance. Professional athletes have superior components of balance. This is in part due to exercising the proprioception, strength, and visual systems to improve reaction times and precision of power required to excel at their sport. Through vigorous training and repetition of activity, they become experts. Not all people are born with superior components of balance. When we age and become more sedentary proprioception, vision, strength, and the vestibular system begin to decline. As balance declines in older adults, fear of falling promotes a lack of movement and these systems become even weaker. This deterioration can be delayed by exercising and maintaining each system.
The vestibular system is highly developed in the early years of life as toddlers and children are playing on merry-go-rounds, teeter totters, monkey bars and swings. Bounce Houses are one of the most popular events at birthday parties. Kids become obsessed with these games and toys. They focus on inversion, foot/hand precision, rapid change of direction, and strength – these all enhance their vestibular systems. Before you know it, kids are zooming down the mountain without ski poles and doing flips on the gymnastics floor.
The minute we stop exercising our balance, we begin to lose it. Athletes will continue to enhance or maintain balance through their sport however most sports do not focus on inversion, heights, or rapid change of direction on an unstable surface. Gymnastics is one of the most popular sports for young children and involves jumping, hanging, and flipping. Unfortunately, many kids do not continue past age 8-10 with it. Recess time and PE classes are cut exponentially in middle school. The kids who do not participate in sports are left in the dust and their vestibular systems begin to decline.
As we become adults, unless we practice being inverted (yoga, CrossFit), take part in rock climbing, mountain biking or other similar sports we become deficit in our tolerance to positions other than upright. If one other component of balance is lost – strength, vision, or proprioception – risk of fall is exponentially increased. The “use it or lose it rule” becomes vital to long-term maintenance of balance. Many are working on avoiding falls by strengthening proprioception (single leg balance), strengthening their core/hips in the gym, and getting their eyes checked for visual health. But how do we exercise our vestibular system? Many Physical Therapists have people do balance exercises (such as single leg standing) with eyes closed. This takes away vision to force the vestibular system and proprioception to compensate. Great exercise but…Boring.
Instead, I say we all resume childhood games. Play at the playground: go swinging, merry-go-round, order a Bounce House for your next bar-b-que at the park. If you have kids, play the same games with them. Start doing somersaults and hand stands on the wall like you did when you were 6 years old in gymnastics class. This would be the fastest way to start exercising your vestibular system. At CrossFit West of the River we activate our vestibular systems through handstands, forward rolls, cartwheels, and more…and we have FUN doing it! Other activities you could do to help stimulate your vestibular system would be Yoga, rock climbing, or a trapeze class. It will be fun and will keep you on your feet longer with less chance of falling. And, it is never too late to start. There is no reason why your 80-year-old grandma can’t get on the swing set with the grand kids.
Use it or lose it for prolonged vestibular function and balance.
Check out 63-year old member Mary activating her vestibular system with some forward rolls! This lady will not have issues with falling anytime soon! Click the Link: IMG_5171