Balance is a complex phenomenon but, simply put, it refers to the body's ability to stay stable and upright. Balance is complicated because numerous systems contribute to it. The body and brain integrate the following information from the sensory systems in the body to formulate an appropriate response: Balance is a response to an ever-changing environment and relies on the body’s ability to sense those changes and react QUICKLY.
What Does Balance Rely On?
Proprioceptive awareness is your body’s ability to know what it is doing without you looking at it. This is how you can tell if your leg is moving, what position your foot is in and whether you are standing up tall or squatting down. It is your boy’s positional awareness of itself. Your joints and muscles send information to your brain about the position of your joints. Ligaments are primarily responsible for sending this information. This is why after a ligament sprain in the ankle, people can really struggle to balance with their eyes closed!
Our eyes tell us where we are in relation to our environment. This is why it is more difficult to balance on one leg with your eyes closed compared to if you had them open. If you focus on one static object in the distance with your eyes, suddenly, balance becomes much easier! If we rely too much on our vision for balance, this can make busy environments very difficult because everything in the environment is moving!
- Inner Ear Function (Vestibular Function)
The inner ear is filled with fluid that moves through little channels. The direction of the movement of this fluid is dependent on what position our body is in. If we are unstable, there will be a lot of movement in the channels, and this will prompt our body to respond.
- Touch and Sensation
The pressure of our feet on the ground provides information about where our weight is distributed and lets us know if we are leaning, swaying or about to fall. Similarly, the pressure of other surfaces in contact with our body gives us a sense of where we are in our environment and if we are safe. Another example is the sensation of wind against our bodies.
- Cognition / Nervous System
Our brain has to integrate all this information from our body, determine what it means and think of how to respond, all within a very short period of time. The brain then needs to initiate this response and direct the body to move in a way that restores balance.
- Musculoskeletal Strength
The body itself – the muscles, joints, bones and tendons- needs to be fit and capable enough to follow the instructions from the brain to do what is required not to fall. If the muscles and bones, and joints are deconditioned or fragile or not strong enough, this can make it very difficult to stay balanced.
Balance is very complicated, but this doesn’t mean that interventions targeted towards improving balance have to be.
What Can I Do to Maintain My Balance As I Age?
- Strengthen Your Muscles, Bones and Joints
Strengthening exercises that help maintain or improve muscle mass is important for keeping your body fit and capable. Stretches can help to maintain your joint range of motion and make sure you have the freedom to move. There are many community classes tailored to older individuals to help them with strength and conditioning, and balance. Explore your options!
- Challenge Your Body in Difficult Positions To Maintain Balance
Many people struggle to stand on one leg. You would not think it, but this is a very important thing to be able to do. After all, walking is standing on one leg and then moving on to the other one, and so on and so forth. If you can do this, try and do this while moving your head (vestibular and visual interference) or closing your eyes (visual interference) and see how much your body relies on vision and the inner ear for balance.
- Get Adequate Rest
Because the brain plays such an integral role in balance, fatigue, inability to concentrate, and tiredness can impact your ability to respond to your environment. Getting adequate rest is important.
- Wear Supportive Shoes
A comfortable pair of shoes with a stable, non-slip surface is very helpful for making sure your environment is safe. Wear the most appropriate shoes and clothing for the environment you are in.
- Cognitive Exercise
Exercises that challenge your mind's ability to think quickly can help with reaction time and, indirectly, balance.
- Gait Aids
Sometimes, it is best if we have help from assistive equipment to make sure we can remain active in the community. Walking sticks, frames etc., can help to increase your stability and give you the freedom to explore your environment.
Always make sure you are in a safe environment when challenging your balance. These are some ideas, but it is always important to talk to your health professional and work out whether these interventions are appropriate for you.
If you are concerned with your balance, come and have a chat with one of our physiotherapists today.
Blog by Brittany Romas – Physiotherapist, PhysioChoice Hampton.
Brittany holds a Bachelor of Applied Science and a Master of Physiotherapy from La Trobe University. She is currently studying for her Masters of Sports and Exercise Physiotherapy at La Trobe University. She is an avid powerlifter and has a strong interest in strength conditioning, acute sports injuries, and occupational-related conditions. Brittany has spent time in South East Asia working with paediatric patients with a large range of neurological disorders; she has developed a keen interest in providing disability support in conjunction with the NDIS. Brittany believes in a holistic approach to her client’s rehabilitation and treatments, including Hydrotherapy, Dry Needling and Clinical Pilates.