Let's start with the basics. What is balance? Balance is the means by which we control of the body's center of mass, related to its base of support in either a stationary position or moving through the our current surroundings. Whether stationary or moving, our vestibular system is helping us resist gravity to stay upright and multiple muscle groups are engaged in the process as well and in both positions (moving & stationary). Next, let's touch briefly on the importance of training the different systems involved (vestibular or inner ear and proprioceptive or the 3D map our brain has of our body in space). We'll also touch on the importance of a systematic, progressive resistance training program that utilizes the varying types of muscle contractions throughout those progressions. Is the terminology starting to stimulate a yawn or checking out of reading this post??? Well, hold on and keep your balance for a few more minutes as you finish reading this because fall prevention as we age is actually wildly important!
The Vestibular System
This is the system of canals and crystals in your inner ear that provide your brain with feedback about your posture and how 'upright' you are and basically help you resist gravity in different positions. One thing that we need to understand really quickly about the nervous system is that there are 3 basic components to its functionality. These are: 1. input (5 senses, proprioceptive map and vestibular system) 2. interpretation in the brain 3. output - our reaction and action as we interact with our environment
We need to have clear, correct input in order to allow the brain to process that correctly and then finish with the proper output as we engage with our world and interact with our environment.
The vestibular system is made up of our inner ear (we obviously have 2) and those each have 3 semi-circular canals. The canals are integral in sensing head position and therefore providing your brain with feedback that helps keep you upright. Major canal issues will usually mean major balance issues. Minor canal issues may not lead to dizziness, vertigo, falls or anything like that, BUT they can still affect movement quality. And you guessed it, even minor dysfunction in the vestibular system, will be detrimental to quick, high quality movement.
There are a few ways of assessing the function and hundreds, probably thousands of drills that can be done to improve the functioning of the inner ear, which means improving the quality of the input as well as the brain's interpretation of that input. At Strong Tower, we're here to help so if you'd like a 'vestibular assessment' just reach out. If you have further questions about this type of assessment or training, don't hesitate to replay or drop a comment here!
The Proprioceptive System
Training the proprioceptive system is important and it is where most trainers focus a lot of their time and energy. This system is essentially your 3-D map of where your body parts are, whether you're moving them, how fast your moving them as well as how they are interacting with your environment. You can see why this is also a pretty important system in terms of balance. You must have a good awareness of where your base of support is and how it is moving in order to keep your center of mass (we often hear the term center of gravity) on top of it, i.e. balanced! There are a bunch of great activities to improve proprioception, including a dynamic strength training program, playing with your kids and grand-kids and going for a hike with some fun neural drills or joint mobility drills incorporated with your friends, wherever you need to stop and rest along the way. Let's talk more about that strength training program and specifics that relate to decreasing your chances of taking a tumble.
Progressive Resistance Training
A systematic and progressive resistance training program can do a whole lot. We know that it can help you increase strength, muscular endurance, lose body fat, kick out endorphins and other hormones that help with mental health but can it also help with balance? Absolutely! The different types of muscle fibers are important to touch on here. Without getting too complicated, you have 3 types of muscle fibers. See the chart below:
Fiber TypeContraction SpeedUsed Mostly For
I (slow twitch)SlowAerobic
IIA (fast twitch)FastLong term anaerobic
IIB (fast twitch)Very FastShort term anaerobic
As you can see, there are 3 different speeds at which they operate as well. For balance training, studies have shown a direct correlation between improving leg power (think fast, explosive movement) in a safe training environment and fall risk. As leg power improved through a progressive training program, fall risk decreased.
A Final Note on Mobility Work
Doing mobility work can help with a few things that are balance related. Range of motion and proprioception are the two BIGGIES that come to mind here in terms of mobility work's direct impact on fall prevention and your balance systems. You can think about mobility work as maintenance work on your body. Massage, myofascial release, controlled joint rotations, banded joint mobilizations, PNF stretching, contract/relax stretching, Active Isolated stretching, etc. Most of us do regular maintenance on our vehicles and maybe even electronics because we want them to last longer, right? Well, why wouldn't we treat our bodies (physical health) with just as much, if not more, TLC, awareness and planning!?