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Maintaining Balance

May 3, 2011
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Balance is key to keeping our bodies injury-free, preventing us from slips, falls, broken bones and sprains. But our sense of balance deteriorates as we age—we lose muscle and bone mass, and our senses (especially vision) begin to dull, which leads to us feeling more unsteady, unsure.

Fortunately, like muscle and bone, balance can be strengthened and maintained through training. It’s an aspect of training that most people don’t consider adding to their workouts, but it’s a vital one. Recent studies have shown that elderly people and women with osteoporosis have benefited significantly from balance training programs. Even better if the balance training is started in midlife, before the effects of age have started to take a toll.

Of course, balance starts with strong muscles, so strength training is important—but having that strength be distributed evenly throughout the body is crucial. In a recent article about balance training in the L.A. Times, Dallas-based pilates instructor Karon Karter says even runners, who have very strong quads, can wind up with poor balance due to underdeveloped muscles in their glutes and inner and outer thighs.

Yoga and pilates are excellent all-over balance-builders, but even just adding a few new moves to your old workout routine can build better balance.

From the L.A. Times:

When it comes to balance-specific training, “Your ultimate goal is to be able to maintain your balance in tricky situations,” says Kansas City-based trainer Sabrena Merrill. “If I have a client with poor balance skills, I’ll start off with safe floor exercises, then progress to standing on two feet, then on one leg. If they can do that without assistance, that means they have challenged their systems to the point where they’re sufficient for everyday functional activities.”

Balance training almost always involves targeting core muscles — the ones surrounding the trunk and the back, such as the abdominals, obliques and latissimus dorsi. But it doesn’t end there. “For the balance we need for daily living,” exercise physiologist Michael Bracko says, “strength comes from the legs and goes through the core.”

People who want to advance their balance training can invest in equipment such as Bosu Balance Trainers, stability balls and wobble boards. Bosus — half-sphere inflatable balls that are wobbly when stood on or sat upon — can be used without any other equipment, or with light weights or other gear for even more demanding workouts. Just doing a simple squat or a lunge on a Bosu offers great balance training.

Even cardio workouts should involve some instability. Elliptical trainers, stationary bikes and other cardio machines may raise the heart rate sufficiently, but they always offer an even, steady surface — and that does precious little for preserving someone’s balance. Taking a class, playing a sport, or walking, running or cycling outside force the body to travel in more planes of movement.

Pilates and yoga can help develop balance as well, Karter says: “In yoga, you’re doing a lot of standing poses, so you have to learn to gauge your core stabilizing muscles — otherwise, you’ll tip over.” Martial arts training, which often involves standing on one leg, also improves stability, as do many boot camp classes.

“You can do something at any age,” Bracko says. “It’s never too late to start.”

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