Balance is one of the four key components of overall fitness, along with aerobic ability, strength and flexibility.
For the most part, your body relies on its unconscious communication with your brain to determine the position of your body and its limbs with respect to the space around you. This communication is known as proprioception or the awareness of posture, movement and changes in equilibrium and the knowledge of position, weight and resistance of objects in relation to the body (source: Tabers cyclopedic medical dictionary). However, as you age and/or as you become less fit, your body tends to rely more on visual cues to maintain balance.
You may not consciously think about your balance, but it plays a significant role in your health. According to the Centers for Disease Control, falls are the leading cause of nonfatal injuries treated in emergency rooms in the U.S. for every age group but two (ages 10-14 and ages 15-24). The research also found that people who exercised did not suffer from falls as often as people who did not exercise at all.
The good news, though, is that balance can be learned at any age and if you participate in about two hours of regular exercise a week that requires balance, you can retain it. In addition, exercises that strengthen the central muscles of your body, your “core” – the abdominals, hips, glutes, lower and mid-back – can help you maintain good posture and thus, retain balance.
Regular exercise sharpens your proprioception and speeds up the transmission of signals from your body to your brain. Most everyday aerobic, resistance or flexibility exercises – like walking, jogging and bicycling – can help improve your proprioception and your balance.
Both yoga and Pilates are great exercises for improving posture and flexibility while enhancing your core strength, which contributes to improving balance. Also, exercise routines that include agility/weight shifting – like dance and plyometrics – can greatly improve your postural reflexes (your ability to adjust your body and shift your weight in counterbalance), and mobility which can actually reduce the occurence of falls.
You know the saying, “if you do not use it, you will lose it” – well it holds true for balance. Even if you are very fit and athletic, balance is still a skill that needs consistent development. Two hours of regular exercise a week are all you need to bring about a positive improvement in your balance and reduce your risk of injury due to falls.