Human beings negotiate the world on two legs, a skill mastered in toddlerhood. As children we are well balanced and swift. Then one day in mid-adulthood, we look at our children and realize that they are fast out-performing us in skills that require balance. When did balance become more difficult? Of course we cannot define that point because life sneaks up on us, nibbling away at skills we do not practice because nature works assiduously to conserve energy. Motor and mental tasks we do not practice get put to rest.
What’s involved in balance?
We maintain balance by taking in three types of sensory input and adjusting muscular activity accordingly. The three input systems are vision, messages from hair-like projections in three fluid-filled canals set at right angles to each other in the bone of the middle ear, and continuous reporting from delicately engineered receptors in our muscles and tendons that measure stretch and tension. We can learn to balance without the first two components of the balance system, but not the third. To demonstrate the importance of the input from the muscles and tendons, try getting up and walking after one foot has fallen densely asleep from pressure on the nerves which are the highways for sensory information on its way to the brain. Even if you can wiggle the foot because motor nerves are more resistant to pressure, you cannot use it without knowing where it is.
“Use it or lose it” applies to balance
Much of modern adult life involves little more than moving from one form of sitting to another, which gives the feedback systems in the eyes, ears, and muscles and tendons little exercise. Over time, balance skills deteriorate, and eventually falling happens with simply tripping or changing position or direction. Falling is the cause of many hospitalizations and, often, the injuries incurred lead to death. Living well and independently over the decades depends in no small part on maintaining the ability to walk without falling. Fortunately, balance improves with practice, and we have ample opportunity throughout the day to engage the balance systems and give them a workout.
Waking up the eyes and ears
Eyes are easy. Look around while you walk. Off to the side, up, down, straight ahead. If you are a straight-ahead looker most of the time, looking around may make you feel a bit unsteady at first. But your brain will begin to coordinate the changes with the information coming in from the ears and the muscles, so it will get easier. Once it does you can add more head movement, following your gaze. That will add more movement of the inner ear canals, which can become very accustomed to minimal movement. Young adults taking dance lessons for the first time or grandparents taking grandchildren on park equipment might be surprised to find themselves dizzy because of long unpracticed movements that involve spinning in circles or bending over. The ears are reporting unusual movements but with practice they will re-learn and stop sounding alarms. Deliberate exercises in head tilting and turning, such as the ones widely prescribed for benign positional vertigo, can speed the process.
Waken the muscle receptors by paying attention to walking
The stretch and strain receptors in the muscles are active whenever we are upright, but also lose function – even in walking, which is the most frequent and complex motor function we perform. Walking involves the subconscious coordination of over 300 muscles in a series of controlled falls that move the 200 bones of the skeleton forward or backwards in space, sometimes with the addition of upward or downward travel on stairs or ramps. Walking requires one-footed balance, with one foot bearing the body’s entire weight while the other foot swings forward. Landing the forward moving foot prevents the body from falling as it moves forward.
As the years pass, the body’s motor system tries to conserve energy by allowing you to use fewer, large muscles rather than more numerous small ones to accomplish the task of walking. Balance suffers and it is harder to adjust quickly to uneven terrain or surprises that throw you off balance. Learning to re-engage and strengthen all the smaller muscles devoted to one-legged balance re-awakens a lot of the sensory input and improves stability in all your upright activities.
Exercises for one-footedness
A good exercise for developing one-footed balance involves standing on one foot while barefoot (elevated heels throw the center of gravity forward), lifting the other knee in front of you and using a countertop for support. The gluteal muscles in the buttock on the side of the weight bearing leg will be forced to contract to keep the pelvis from dropping on the other side. The entire foot, powered by the lower leg muscles, is the stable platform that supports the rest of the body and the big toe stays in active contact with the ground. As strength and balance improve, try moving away from the support of the counter, getting the free knee up to a right angle in front of you and then swinging it down and back and a little behind you, concentrating on keeping the pelvis level and stable and the trunk upright. Adding toe lift exercises on stairs – dropping the heels a little below the stair level and pushing up from there – adds to the strength and flexibility of the ankles and to sensory input from the many intrinsic foot muscles and lower leg muscles.
Taking the exercises out for a walk
Once you get the feel of the muscle contractions necessary for one-legged balance, then try to feel the same sequences of activity while walking. Good, upright posture helps. Your head weighs 10-14 pounds when directly over your spine, but the weight doubles, triples and even quadruples in proportion to how far in front of the body it is. If you have the habit of jutting your head forward with a curve in the back of the neck, or looking at the ground while you walk, the work of balancing increases proportionately. Keep the chest lined up over the pelvis and engage the trunk muscles – the so-called core – by trying to lift the pubic bone upward with the front of the abdomen. The core muscles maintain proper pelvic tilt. Then, while walking, try to feel the one-footedness you practiced while standing next to the kitchen counter and the ankle motion you felt doing toe lifts.
The action in walking is at the hip, ankle, and foot. The role of the knee is to let the leg bend as necessary. As you shift your weight to one foot, the gluteals contract in the buttock to hold the pelvis and prevent the released side from dropping. In the brief phase before the supporting leg begins to push you forward, notice the entire sole of the foot. Its connection with the ground begins with the heel planting down and continues as the body weight rolls forward. The knee will be straightest when you push through and are about to plant the new foot.
Do not neglect the feeling coming from the toes – especially the big one as you push off and begin to move the other leg through. Toes add a significant amount of surface area, increasing the available sensory information fed into the motor system and they contribute to the push phase of the gait. Notice also how the ankle moves as the heel lifts off the ground. Notice all of it as your other leg is swinging through and really try to relate the sensations to the one footed balance exercises you have done to practice.
Notice other gaits
And while you are out walking and noticing your own one-footedness, take a look at some of the gaits you see. You will begin to learn the risk factors for falling. You’ll see people using only large muscle groups, initiating the leg swing by lifting the entire side of the body, from the shoulder down. They are already off balance. Their bodies must tip to the opposite side to allow the advancing leg to clear the ground. When the new leg lands and the weight shift begins again, the gluteals are not engaged, there is no push off from the hip and the foot, and the other side begins to lift from the shoulder. On a sunny day you will see such a walker’s shadow shift from side to side. Sometimes there are physical problems that impair walking balance, but for someone in good health, without neurological disorders like neuropathy, working to make the shadow move in a straight line pays off in a longer functional life.