Going Barefoot and 8 Other Ways to Improve Balance
Balance is something we don’t think much about after we learn it (as a child) or start to lose it (as a senior), but balance is crucial to healthy living.
Many of the people I coach are in their 50s and 60s (and a few beyond that) so balance has become a bit of a focus for me lately. And just recently I received a question on Facebook about ways to improve balance and decided it was time to address this topic publicly. So, let’s take a look at how balance works, why we need it, and what we can do to maintain it.
If you pay attention to it, the world is always trying to knock you over in creative ways. The ground gets slippery when it rains, it gets slick with foreign substances, and it is often riddled with bumps and cracks. Our old foe gravity constantly pulls on us, as if it is just waiting for us to slip up and take a tumble. The fact that we manage to stay upright the majority of the day is actually pretty incredible.
For children, balance is something that requires practice. For adults, it's something we only think about when we test its limits with daring feats. (Parkour anyone?) But the older we get, the more the world seems to challenge our balance. With that in mind, doesn’t it sound like a good idea to keep practicing it?
Before we get to that, let’s talk about how we actually balance.
How Do We Balance?
According to vestibular.org: "Balance is achieved and maintained by a complex set of sensorimotor control systems that include sensory input from vision (sight), proprioception (touch), and the vestibular system (motion, equilibrium, spatial orientation)."
- Vision: Visual input provides an overview of our physical surroundings.
- Proprioception: Nerves in our muscles and connective tissues relay information about our position in our physical surroundings.
- Vestibular System: Fluid in our inner ears acts as a kind of level, telling us where our bodies are in space.
If one of these systems is impaired, the other ones pick up the slack. But this becomes harder and harder as we age , as our vision gets weaker, and as our muscles atrophy, effectively weakening two of three systems that we rely on for good balance.
But this isn’t just a problem of age. Young people who want to enhance their athletic performance also need better balance.
But this isn’t just a problem of age. Young people who want to enhance their athletic performance also need better balance. Let’s face it, balance is a large part of maintaining good, strong technique while skating, tumbling, running, jumping, cycling, throwing, and so on.
Balance has also been shown in studies to predict injuries in athletes. Balance practice and even balance training has been shown to reduce the risk of injuries in soccer and volleyball players.
Being truly still requires all of your 600+ muscles to be active at precisely the same time. This is tricky and requires practice.
When you attempt to stand perfectly still, you likely feel a bunch of lurching motions happen all over your body. This is normal. This is simply your body making its best guess as to where you are in space, over and over again.
Being truly still requires all of your 600+ muscles to be active at precisely the same time.
When your brain sends the message to stand still to the rest of your body, you might think your body would be 100% relaxed. But once again, the world is working against your best wishes. Wind, gravity, the gentle rotation of the earth, the swaying of the building you are in, impairments in your nervous system, and many other factors are forcing your body to react, rebalance, and re-relax. This should be mostly unnoticeable (unless, of course, the wind is high, the earth is off its axis, or you just got off the scrambler at the fair) and automatic, not requiring any thought or activity from you.
Now, if you aren’t able to stand still in the absence of these forces, then there is a problem with your nervous system. This can be either at the sensory level (your muscles are so tight that they can’t determine their position) or at the processing level (the information being transmitted through the spinal nerves is being degraded or blocked).
Don’t fret! There are things we can do about this. Let’s start with a couple tests.
Balance Test #1
Take off your shoes and socks and stand with your feet pointing straight ahead. Nice and parallel, with your feet hip-width apart.
How stable do you feel? Are you wobbling? Can you feel your body reacting and readjusting?
Next, close your eyes. Note if there are any changes between your feeling of stillness before and after closing your eyes.
If you felt like you were moving around a lot more with your eyes closed, this is why. Like I said earlier, your eyes are only a small part (one third) of the sensory input system that you need for balance. Your muscles, tendons, and bones should know where they are without looking. But the worse they communicate with the brain, the more you rely on your eyes to make corrections to your stability.
In order to get your body communicating properly, we need to stop forcing the eyes to do the work. We need to wake up the muscles, joints, and other proprioceptors. We’ll get into how to do that later. For now, let’s do another test.