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