Why You Seriously Need to Start Balance Training Now

08/25/2016 12:35 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2016

You know the old adage, “If you don’t use it, you lose it”? You’ll often hear this quip in gyms as trainers remind clients to keep up with their cardio and strength training routines. But what we don’t get reminded about enough is to train our balance, arguably the most overlooked component of our fitness. Except during the summer Olympics, when we are transfixed by the gymnasts doing things on a 4-inch wide beam we can barely manage in a wired harness on a trampoline, balance training is rarely top of mind when it comes to our own workouts. Walk into a gym you’ll see the majority of people schvitzing on cardio machines, throwing weights around, and doing some stretches in the corner. But unless they’re doing Warrior 3 in a yoga class, you won’t see many people balancing on wobble boards, squishing pads, BOSUs or lifting weights while standing on one leg. This is unfortunate because like strength, endurance and flexibility, you will also lose your ability to balance if you don’t use it.

According the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), balance is key to many day-to-day activities, preventing falls and staying independent as you age. Research also shows that balance training can help minimize injuries to the back, knee and ankle.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) says that 9 percent of people over 65 report having difficulty balancing. Combine that with a decline in lower body strength, and we get an alarming 300,000 hospital admissions for fall-related injuries among older adults each year.

In fact, research shows that altered balance is the greatest collaborator towards falls in the elderly with a high correlation between balance deficit and the incidence of falls. This is especially dangerous for people with osteoporosis, which affects approximately 55 percent of the population above 50 years old in the U.S. When an elderly person with osteoporosis falls, life can go downhill faster than a sled on fresh ice. Falls are responsible for 90 percent of the growing increase in hip fractures, according to the NIH, and are the sixth cause of death among patients aged over 65.

The good news is that exercise programs designed to prevent falls in older adults also seem to prevent injuries caused by falls. French researchers who studied the results of 17 trials found that exercise programs reduced falls that caused injuries by 37 percent, falls leading to serious injuries by 43 percent, and broken bones by 61 percent.

Balance training isn’t just for seniors, and can be incorporated into any fitness routine whether your exercise program is at the beginning stages all the way up to beast mode. For newbies, it is a big help for stabilizing joints and developing coordination. A. Lynn Millar, P.T., Ph.D., FACSM writes in the ACSM blog that balance is also important as you progress into advanced levels of training when, “the exercises become more demanding on your neuromuscular system, and your body needs to have a trained balance mechanism to keep up.” And, optimizing balance can give advanced exercisers an extra boost in performance.

Me doing the Kettlebell Single Leg, Stiff Leg Deadlift (great for balance and the glutes!)
jill Brown Fitness
Me doing the Kettlebell Single Leg, Stiff Leg Deadlift (great for balance and the glutes!)

Since balance training promotes joint stabilization, the muscles around them get stronger by default making you a little less likely to do real damage the next time you step cockeyed onto a loose rock when your dog is pulling you down the block (or is that just me?). Another benefit of balance training is that your body develops better kinesthetic awareness (knowing where your body is situated in space) helping you catch yourself before you trip over that curb your dog pulled you over but you didn’t see (again, is that just me?). Improving your function of sensory receptors in the nervous system cue the brain about what’s about to happen and help you brace or gracefully catch yourself from planting your face on the sidewalk. Simply said, balance training decreases your risk of injury by improving your coordination, kinesthetic awareness, reflexes and gives you better control of your movements, which is helpful if you’re an athlete.

What is balance anyway? According to Derek Mikulski, certified strength and conditioning coach and founder of the ActivMotion Bar, “balance is defined as an even distribution of weight enabling someone to remain upright, steady and in control of their body.” That means you need to have enough core strength, motor control, mobility and stability in order to have any decent balance skills. The shifting ball bearings inside the ActivMotion Bar, Derek says, “requires the user to focus more motor control and mind/muscle awareness to maintaining equilibrium as the weight shifts which is very conducive to developing core strength and proprioceptive abilities” needed to truly improve balance. 

Balance is also interconnected with posture. Hunter Joslin, whose balance abilities at the age of 64 are better than yours (or mine). He’s the founder of the Indo Board, or what circus performers would call a Rolla-Bolla and what I call my nemesis. Hunter says it’s harder for people to balance if they have a weak core. And, “the better your posture is the better your balance is.” Demonstrating this for me at the IDEA World fitness conference this summer, he shows me if your head goes forward, it throws off your center of gravity. In the case of board sports, when the head’s alignment to the body is wrong, you end up fighting to balance rather than feeling at ease. He oughtta know. Hunter balances all day whether it’s in the water surfing, on a convention floor demonstrating his product and allegedly even while he’s on the computer.

Hunter Joslin, founder of the Indo Board
Indoboard.com
Hunter Joslin, founder of the Indo Board

It may be obvious that boarders and gymnasts need insanely good balance, but many other sports do too…. like Rugby for example. Brian Doyle founder of the Axius Core played rugby for the U.S. National team. One of the most critical things he learned is that “balance and instability training are vital to both injury prevention and enhancing athletic performance.” When he was in physical therapy after blowing out an ACL in his knee, he learned how important balance training was. This was the impetus for his new piece of equipment, the Axius Core trainer. It was designed to constantly put the body in unstable positions, while allowing you to focus stabilization and core control in positions like planks, rollouts, pushups and squats. If you’re a fan of using the BOSU on both sides, you’ll definitely flip for this new device.

 

Whether you’re new to balance training or, are getting to the stage in life where you’re grateful for handrails, there are some easy ways to start.

 

Perform balance training before you do resistance training, so your muscles are not fatigued.

Here are some reco’s from the ACSM

Safety:

  • Balance training tools should only be used on a flat, stable, non-slip surface. Be sure to consult with your physician prior to starting a balance training program.

 

  • Always practice balance training near a stable structure (such as a wall, bar or counter) to give you some assistance if you slip or begin to fall; or practice under the supervision of a qualified professional.

 

  • When starting any new training program, it is important to use a gradual progression.  Begin with low-intensity exercises and progress to more challenging exercises.

 

  • Perform balance training before you do resistance training, so your muscles are not fatigued.

Getting Started:

  • First start with simple balance training exercises – such as standing on one foot for a few seconds, and then gradually increasing your time for more difficulty.

 

General guidelines for balance training:

  • Start with a relatively stable foundation or position before progressing to a less stable foundation or position.

 

  • When performing balance exercises, it helps to focus on a non-moving object. This will keep your attention and allow you to focus your eyesight for better stability.

 

  • Start with static or stationary position (holding a position) before adding any movement (e.g., walking or stepping) or resistance (e.g., adding a hand weight).

 

  • From there, you may add movement to your balance pose, such as lifting your arms while still keeping your balance on one foot.

 

  • When you need to be challenged beyond this, add a balance tool of your choice. To get a personalized program that is appropriate for your current fitness level and balance abilities, consult a qualified and experienced fitness professional.

 

  • To reduce the changes of injury from falls, older adults or those at risk, should perform exercises that maintain or improve balance.

 

  • Balance training should be performed daily for improvement in overall stability.
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