Better Balance = Better Quality of Life
By Karl Knopf Ph.D.
Do you want a fulfilling and fun life? If yes, then having good balance is the answer! Everything we do, from riding a horse to paddleboarding to window shopping with our friends, entails having adequate balance. Good balance is more than standing on one leg, though. It can, among many other things, also involve sitting upright, unsupported, and walking across the wet stones of a creek. Functional balance is critical for everyone, from tightrope walkers to wounded warriors trying to regain their ability to walk again. The loss of functional balance could inhibit even the simplest activities of daily living, from climbing a ladder to curtailing our involvement in sports that we love.
Poor balance often leads to falls, which account for many visits to the emergency room. When we’re young and lose our balance, we often laugh it off since the only damage done is to our ego. However, as we get older, a simple fall can contribute to serious injury, whether a fractured wrist, dislocated shoulder, or, worse yet, a broken hip. Appropriate balance is a critical component of everyday living; it can’t be understated from maintaining balance on the athletic field to simply navigating around the house.
Balance is defined as “the ability to maintain the center of a mass over the base of support.” This is evident even when you see rocks strategically stacked on top of each other to produce sculptures. Human balance, however, is more problematic than setting stones on top of each other because we must keep our equilibrium under a variety of disturbances, such as walking on uneven terrain, running, or maintaining balance on a moving train. Graceful balance is critical to your quality of life. It results from maintaining equilibrium in both posture and alignment, whether you’re standing still on a balance bar or moving smoothly across a gymnastics floor.
There are two types of balance: static balance and dynamic balance. Static balance involves remaining stationary in one place for some time. Examples of static balance include standing on one or even two legs without moving or maintaining solid balance on our hands and knees without shaking. Dynamic balance is being able to move effortlessly and gracefully from one place to the next at any given speed or to be able to change direction quickly while still maintaining balance. It’s said that “walking is basically falling forward from one step to the next.” That is an oversimplification because walking requires concentric contractions of specific muscles to propel us forward and eccentric contractions to decelerate us from falling forward. In other words, asking the body to move from one spot to the next while maintaining a balanced posture involves a complex sequence of neuromuscular interactions. Walking, full-body turns, and quick “cuts” in sports, jumping, and landing are all examples of dynamic balance.
Some mobility experts consider walking as falling forward yet catching ourselves before falling entirely to the ground. You might say, “I don’t fall,” but fall-prevention experts deem that “tripping” but catching yourself is technically a fall. The more often we “trip,” the greater the risk the next one will be. Our body needs to know when to engage certain muscles while relaxing others to maintain good balance. Even overreaching for an object can throw us off balance, while a quick turn of the head can cause us to stumble. Some people even find that moving from sitting to standing can cause them to lose their balance. However, we often improve our balance without consciously knowing it, such as when we automatically lower our center of gravity when walking across a slippery surface or seeing that we’re going to be bumped. We also know that if our shoes have traction, our balance will be better on wet surfaces.