Most of us are pretty good at sitting down…because we spend a lot of time doing it!
But how good are you at balancing?
Poor balance puts you at risk of falls, which is one of the top causes of injury among older adults. Having said that, balance is important to help keep us upright at any age. It’s responsible for keeping you on your feet — even when you are stationary.
If a tightrope walker can keep their centre of gravity directly above their rope at all times, they will never fall off. However, if they start moving to one side, a turning force will start to topple them in that direction. So they have to quickly move part of their body to the other side to make a turning force in the opposite direction and restore their balance. The walker stays perfectly upright, perfectly motionless when all the different turning forces are exactly balanced and cancelling one another out.
Stretching their arms out on either side of their body or carrying a long stick spreads more of the tightrope walker’s mass away from the pivot point, ie their feet. This increases their moment of inertia, which keeps the walker from losing their balance and helps them maintain their balance.
So, what’s going on inside the body as the walker moves along the rope?
How we balance
Without even having to think about it your body is working to help you stay upright. Your eyes, inner ear, muscles and joints send signals to your brain. This system of signals between your inner ear and your brain is called your vestibular system. It’s the same one that keeps you upright when you get out of bed in the morning or walk over rough ground.
How to improve your balance
Balance exercises lessen the amount of contact you have with the floor and force you to look away from where you normally would. This makes the brain work harder to keep you balanced — training it. The more you do this the better your brain becomes at keeping you upright.
Being able to master your balance skills whilst keeping the body still is the best place to start.
The flamingo exercise is excellent for developing your balance skills and can be progressed to increase the challenge as you become more confident. The more you can focus on maintaining the alignment of your body, controlling your breathing and moving slowly the more value you will get from the exercise.
Stand up and position your legs hip distance apart with your toes pointing straight out in front of you. Lengthen your spine from the base (tailbone) all the way out through the top of your head. Relax the tops of your shoulders away from the earlobes and check the shoulders aren’t rolling forwards – imagine the backs of your shoulders a lightly touching a brick wall behind you. Lift your arms to shoulder height and bring them out to the side in a T-shape with your palms facing the floor. Your eyes should be looking straight ahead and your chin should be level, imagine a peach sitting underneath it. Inhale to prepare.
- Exhale as you lift your left foot from the ground and bend the knee to create a 90-degree angle behind it – just like a flamingo. Keep the legs hip distance apart and the fronts of your thighs in line with each other.
- Hold the flamingo position for 5-10 seconds using your Pilates breathing.
- Inhale as your lower the leg.
- Repeat with your right leg.
You can make this exercise more challenging by:
- Placing your arms on your hips, rather than in a T-shape.
- Holding the flamingo position for a longer period of time.
- Placing a beanbag on your head while you hold the flamingo position.
- Closing your eyes while you hold the flamingo position.
NB Don’t try exercises with your eyes closed until you feel confident to do so and make sure you having something nearby to hold onto in case you do lose your balance. A chair is ideal.
Use Pilates breathing when you perform the exercises above. As you inhale breathe through the nose and down into the lungs, expanding the ribs cage laterally. As you exhale bring the belly button to the spine and contract the pelvic floor muscles at the same time.