On Wednesday, I discussed the intricacies of the vestibular system and how the entire body is involved in creating balance. If the neuroplasticity of the brain allows us to learn how to balance better, no matter how old we are, barring conditions such as trauma, disease, or genetic disorders, how do we do so?
A 1999 study (Perrin, Gauchard, Perrot, & Jeandel) established that declines in balance are influenced by level of activity and that even sedentary people could improve their ability to balance by becoming more active. “[R]ecent periods of practice have greater beneficial effects on the subject’s postural stability than [physical and sporting activity] practice only at an early age” (p. 121). However, the researchers also found that across the board, regardless of age, taking away visual data (eyes closed versus open) made for poorer results on all tests. Perrin and colleagues note that the proprioceptive input from the soles of the feet is most important for “maintaining balance under normal conditions” (p. 125).
Echoing Perrin et al.’s results, a study by Pripiata and colleagues (2003) showed that by upping the input from the soles of the feet to the nervous system via vibrating insoles, participants were able to improve their balance, regardless of age, although the elderly participants showed more significant gains.
Since vibrating insoles haven’t yet made it to market, what are our options? A 1996 study by Wolfson and colleagues evaluated balance training, strength training, and balance + strength training, followed by a course of Tai Chi, in a population of elderly people (mean age of 80). They found that “relatively healthy older persons can realize meaningful short-term gains in balance and strength . . . and can maintain those gains to a lesser extent through a low-intensity maintenance program of Tai Chi practice” (p. 505).
Interestingly, a correlation may exist between losing physical balance and losing mental balance. Wang and colleagues (2006) found that “lower levels of physical [balance] performance were associated with an increased risk of dementia and [Alzheimer’s disease” (p. 1115). Loss of postural balance also appears to be an early indicator of diminished cognitive functions and loss of grip strength a later indicator in people who were already exhibiting cognitive issues. “Cognitive ability is essential for conducting physical tasks: performing physical tasks, in return, may enhance or maintain cognitive ability” (p. 1119).
Creating a Balance(d) Practice
In Yoga Tune Up®, we emphasize that every pose is an assessment pose. I propose further that every pose is a balance-assessment pose. We can play with speeding up movements, slowing them down, or finding a still point. As I researched this subject, the role of the feet in achieving better balance fascinated me. McCredie (2007) notes in his book that as we age, we lose the sensation in our feet more quickly than we do in our hands. This makes sense given that we encase our feet in shoes every day, limiting their mobility and sensory capabilities, whereas the hands remain mobile.
Waking up the feet is a good starting point to improving our ability to balance – not just in yogasana, but in everyday life. Here are some recommendations and practice suggestions to improve your balance:
– Explore massaging the soles of your feet with the YTU Therapy Balls. Tease through the multiple layers on the bottom of your foot and find where your tension hides and where your blind spots are. Get your feet and ankles mobilized and aware so that your feet can respond to changes in terrain and body position.
– Experiment with walking (often called an act of controlled falling). Speed it up, slow it down. Figure out where in the weight shift from foot to foot that your particular body falters.
– Practice consistently for short periods of time (5 to 10 minutes, three or four times a week if possible). Or practice every time you can, for a minute or two. Intersperse balance-specific challenges into your home practice.
My favorite YTU pose that helps to build dynamic balance is Moon Rises. Learn to feel the subtle underfoot shifts as one foot supports the movements of the body above. See how to do it in the video below!
For additional suggestions for balance practice, Robin (2002) has an excellent, detailed appendix in his book on balancing, not just in standing but also in inversions (App. IV). And, of course, the Internet and your local library are also great resources.
Balance is within you and within your grasp, if you seek it.
- Ahmed, S. (2011). Physiology of the body: Equilibrium and balance [Powerpoint]. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/farhan_aq91/physiology-of-equilibrium-balance
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Falls among older adults: An overview. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/falls/adultfalls.html
- Cherry, K. (n.d.). What is brain plasticity. About Education. Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/biopsychology/f/brain-plasticity.htm
- McCredie, S. (2007). Balance: In search of the lost sense. New York: Little, Brown.
- Perrin, P., Gauchard, G., Perrot, C., & Jeandel, C. (1999). Effects of physical and sporting activies on balance control in elderly people. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 33, 121–126. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1756147/pdf/v033p00121.pdf
- Priapata, A., Niemi, J., Harry, J., Lipsitz, L., & Collins, J. (2003). Vibrating insoles and balance control in elderly people. Lancet, 362, 1123–24. Retrieved from http://www.bu.edu/abl/pdf/priplata2003lancet.pdf
- Rankin, L. (2010, December 18). The physiology of balance. My Group Fit. Retrieved from http://www.mygroupfit.com/printeducationarticle.aspx?article=3427
- Robin, M. (2002). A physiological handbook for teachers of yogasana. Tucson: Fenestra.
- Wang, L., Larson, E., Bowen, J., & van Belle, G. (2006). Performance-based physical function and future dementia in older people. Archives of Internal Medicine, 166(10), 1115–1120.
- Wolfson, L., Whipple, R., Derby, C., Judge, J., King, M., Amerman, P., Schmidt., J., & Smyers, D. (1996). Balance and strength training in older adults: Intervention gains and Tai Chi maintenance. Journal of the American Geriatric Society, 44, 498–506. Retrieved from http://www.white-lotus.com/Ken%20Documents/Balance%20and%20Strength%20Training%20in%20Older%20Adults%20Study.pdf
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Practice balance at home with YTU.
thanks for this article. The feet remain the base that is too often neglected. It is interesting even fascinating the element that loss of balance and cognitive loss have a connection.
Your post is a great source of information on the poses or activities to improvise balance. Thanks!
I recently started massaging the soles of my feet with my YTU Therapy Balls and have been surprised at how doing so has really helped me feel more grounded in standing poses, by giving me a greater awareness of what it feels like to have all edges of my feet firmly planted on my mat.
It’s amazing how quickly you can find imbalances in your body just by getting onto one foot. I’ve found that due to past ankle sprains my mobility is much stronger on one side versus the other and the YTU ball foot and ankle sequence have helped a ton.
What a well researched article! So many new concepts to consider, including the link between vibrating insoles of feet and balance, which reinforces the interconnectedness of the body. Balance is so important as people age. I use therapy balls in my classes that I teach with seniors and they do tell me that they see results.
“Cognitive ability is essential for conducting physical tasks: performing physical tasks, in return, may enhance or maintain cognitive ability” (p. 1119). This is a great golden nugget to share with my clients who are older and concerned about maintaining mobility and preventing falls since cognitive health is another primary concern. Waking up the feet make sense to start with in a balance practice. Can this be effective in persons with neuropathy in their feet?
Extremely helpful article! Thank you!
I LOVE this exercise. I used to find warrior 3 so difficult. Now with these glutes awakening exercises I understand how to use my legs properly and how to sustain my trunk and upper body properly.
I never realized the soles of our feet played such an important role in balance though it makes great sense. Parents rush to put their children in shoes which most wear full time for the rest of their lives. Not many kids or adults run around barefoot for so many reasons, parasites in the grass, their feet may get dirty or cut, they live in the city and it is not available to them. As we age it is even less common to go barefoot or feel the ground beneath our feet. Hopefully awareness will change some of our attitudes for the better.
Thank you for this article and the references you’ve made to the studies. I work with quite a few seniors and people with physical disabilities, and when possible, I like to work on balance with them. Though in the moment the clients may get frustrated with their difficulty in maintaining balance in a pose, a few of them have told me how they have noticed improvements in their ability to focus and alertness in daily activities.
Thanks for the post! I particularly like the point about decreased sensation in the feet impacting balance. I have recently begun to use the Yoga Tune Up therapy balls on my feet and am amazed at how much more alive and dynamic my feet have become and how this definitiely impacts every step I take. As mentioned, not a time intensive intervention but so much bang for the buck with a short rolling sequence to wake up the feet and their balance sensors and balancing actions!
I’ve read that feet are our gravity sensors as well. Doing moon risers while paying attention to the shifts in foot response is a nice way of staying focused in this pose and doing good for your feet while you work your hips. Self care of feet sounds so simple…. even spending five minutes at the beginning of your day could improve your balance… just do it!
This article perfectly sums up my own expirience. I had a small area on my left foot which felt numb. Due to that, the balance in my hip an leg has chaned. After I tried the therapeutic balls on my feet, I realised I had a tention in my left calf and tight. From massaging my left foot I came all the way up to my left hip, feeling the tense tissues screaming under the YTU balls. The feet is our foundation, which all the balance of the body is built on.
Thank you for this article! I read recently that chia seeds help with balance, have you heard or researched any studies about food/nutritional impact on balance? I often find when my diet is “clean”, that is when I eat more whole foods I have a much easier time in standing balance poses.
Thank you for the article. In Liberated Body Podcast, Amanda Joyce a Parkinson’s Disease Movement Disorder Specialist also talks about improving balance through movement and walking in particular.
Dawn, love your article! Very informative! I work with my students all the time on balance. Can’t wait to start integrating all the YTU poses in my classes. Thank you for all your help this week!
Fascinating details about balance. I struggled with balance quite a bit after getting hit by a car that broke my back and tore my hip socket. After hip surgery, walking was tough but micro-adjustments to balance were impossible for a long time. Thanks to perseverance and lots of self care, it’s radically improved. I’ve loved moon rises for the way they ease my hip socket through a range of motion, but the balance benefit is another reason to love them more!
Dawn, thank you for this article and the research you did. It gave me many things to think about as I have several clients and a grandfather who has dementia. As I thought about the possible correlation between physical and mental balance, I wondered which one comes first. Is it those who live a life void of activity that can bring them to a decline in mental ability? Or is it a genetic composition in each individual that no matter how active you are, your mental ability will decline and therefore bring down your physical ability. You know like the chicken or the egg effect. Or are those not mutually exclusive in some cases. Whatever the case is I obviously see a difference in the physical ability of my clients and my grandfather who does hardly any physical activity besides walking from one room to the other in his house. Thanks again and I will be processing more of what this subject brings.
Dawn, I found this article so interesting, especially the information on the vestibular system, which I knew nothing about until now. I also appreciated all the references you noted. I found myself wondering while reading what the connection is, if any, of the three semicircular canals to the three planes of motion. It’s difficult to tell in the pic the true orientation of each. Thank you for such an educational post!