Can you hop on one foot? Walk on a beam? Sit on a ball without toppling over? These exercises may sound like child’s play, but they’re actually sophisticated movements that build up physical balance, a skill that’s essential well into adulthood.
Balance might not have the cachet of flat abdominals or a six-minute mile, but it’s remarkable all the same: the result of your brain, eyes, sense of touch, inner ears, and every joint and muscle in your body working in concert. Great balance means great posture, whether you’re sitting still, running, or lifting a weight. When you’re balanced, left and right, and front and back, are exerting equal effort. No one part of the body is overcompensating for another, and because of this “you suffer from fewer aches and pains,” says Jordan Metzl, a sports-medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery, in New York City, and the author of the new book The Exercise Cure ($27, amazon.com). Whether you spend your free time doing Pilates, taking ballroom-dancing classes, or gardening, balance lets you do it better.
Balance also makes you less accident-prone. In a study conducted last year, researchers at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, wired healthy young subjects with typical balance ability to electrodes and sent them walking on (and falling off) a narrow beam affixed to a moving treadmill. Turns out, when people with good balance start to fall, the sensory motor cortex of the brain (the area that receives and interprets sensations) immediately registers that the body is no longer steady. Neurons that track errors, navigation, spatial orientation, planning, and regulation also become instantly activated, while the eyes suss out the body’s new position and how fast it’s moving in space. The muscles react accordingly and right themselves before you hit the floor. You have roughly 250 to 400 milliseconds to catch a fall, says Daniel Ferris, Ph.D., the study’s lead author and a professor of movement science. For those who have good balance, that’s plenty of time. But for those who have let their balance skills dwindle, it’s not enough and it can quickly lead to a bad spill. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls are the leading cause of nonfatal injuries in the United States.
Think your clumsiness is innate and unchangeable? Not so. Granted, about 50 to 75 percent of your ability to balance depends on genetics. But that leaves 25 to 50 percent that can be cultivated, regardless of age, through plain old hard work. Assuming that you don’t have musculoskeletal issues, “anyone can improve their balance, even learn to do a handstand. Some people, due to genetics, find it easier to perfect; others have to work harder at it,” says Ferris.
Whether your goal is mastering that inverted yoga pose or simply avoiding slips in an icy parking lot, building balance requires a two-pronged approach: training your brain and muscle reflexes so that they detect and react to unstable situations quickly; and conditioning your core muscles (your abdominals, pelvis, hips, and lower back, which form the center of gravity that stabilizes your entire body) so that the reaction is controlled, says Kai Wheeler, a San Diego–based personal trainer and human-movement specialist.