A Balanced Life

Mary Tweed
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Good balance is essential for carrying out everyday tasks and activities. From the age of about 30, our balance begins a gradual decline, however, because it is so vital for basic functioning, our brains work hard reacting to visual messages in order to counter the effect of this decline. For many people, it is only when their eyesight worsens in old age that the full extent to which their balance has deteriorated is manifest.

This loss of balance has serious consequences, as every year, around 30% of people aged over 65 have a fall, which can result in serious injury. There were 57,712 hip fractures in England in 2014/15, and falls account for over 4 million hospital bed days every year. Good balance is important, as it can prevent many injuries, such as sprains and falls. The good news is that by practicing exercises that specifically target balance, we are able improve and regain some of the balance skills that have been lost over the years.

How Does Balance Work?

Three sensory systems work together to send messages to the part of our brain responsible for balance. These are the visual system, the vestibular system, and the somatosensory system. If one of these systems is impaired, then it has a direct affect on reaction time and our quality of movement. The vestibular system refers to the inner ear, which enables us to interpret whether it’s us or the world around us that is moving. If hearing declines it can affect the vestibular system. The somatosensory system refers to our sense of touch and sends us information about our body parts are, also know as proprioception. This is the system that responds when we walk on uneven surfaces and makes slight balance adjustments according to terrain changes. It is also this system that can be most improved by regular balance training.

How to Improve Balance

The first place to start is to improve fitness in general, as this trains the somatosensory system to become more sensitive to the messages that it receives all the time and to react faster to those inputs. Remember that posture is the basis for all movement and plays a key role in maintaining balance. Regular physical activity slows down the natural decline in strength, power and endurance, so it is important to continue focussing on strength training, cardiovascular training, flexibility exercises, as well as balance exercises: - Alternate walking 20 paces on your toes and then 20 paces on your heels - Try “tightrope walking” by placing the heel of your right foot directly in front of your left toes, so that they touch, and then walk 20 steps forwards whilst looking straight ahead. - Walking backwards forces you to rely on your somatosensory and vestibular systems rather than the dominant visual system. - Practice single leg balances by holding one leg up and standing on the other for 30 seconds at a time. Too easy? Stand on a cushion and have a go.

Benefits of Good Balance

Aside from the obvious of preventing falls, good balance helps us perform everyday challenges, such as side stepping an obstacle on the pavement or reaching for an item from the top shelf. It improves our reaction time and coordination. It also promotes joint stability and improves confidence.

Nordic Walking and Balance

Nordic Walking’s emphasis on correct posture and flexible footroll, naturally activate the somatosensory system. The addition of poles, or two extra limbs, aids balance and ensures that the walker is exercising both sides of their body symmetrically. It also improves core stability, proprioception and bilateral coordination. Nordic Walking East Anglia Instructors dedicate a section of every lesson to specific balance exercises, such is the importance that we place on this aspect of fitness. We don’t promise that you’ll be skipping along a tightrope any time soon, but we can help you make the first steps on your journey towards better balance.

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