Research has shown that as we age, neuromotor skills decline which is associated with falls and loss of functional mobility. One way to prevent many of these incidents is to perform balance training within a health and fitness program.
Balance training has been shown to be beneficial in improving dynamic joint stabilization. An example of dynamic joint stabilization could be the way our foot and ankle react to the demands of activities such as standing on one leg or simply walking. Muscles that control the position and coordination of the foot and ankle must work with optimum levels of balance and stabilization to ensure that we do not lose balance and possibly become injured. To improve balance we need to follow a progressive and systematic program to allow for adaptations in balance to occur.
Balance can be trained to promote results in stabilization, strength, or power. Balance stabilization training involves little to no joint motion of the stance leg and is designed to improve joint stability. Standing on one foot would be an example of a balance stabilization exercise. Balance strength training involves challenging yourself through more ranges of motion such as in a step up to balance, lunge to balance or a single leg squat. This leads to increased neuromuscular efficiency (control) of the entire body. Finally, balance power training increases the body's ability to start and stop quickly, improving our ability to "put on the brakes" when necessary (if you've ever stepped off a curb you did not know was there, you know what I am talking about). Hopping from one foot to the other and landing with good form would be an example of a balance power exercise.
An example of a balance stabilization program progressions may look something like this:
1. Single leg balance with external support (ex. hand on table or chair)
2. Single leg balance with reduced support (ex. 1 finger on table or chair)
3. Single leg balance (no external support) - view
4. Single leg balance with stance foot on an exercise mat
5. Single leg balance with stance foot on a ½ foam roll
6. Single leg balance with stance foot on an airex pad
This sample program could eventually give way to exercises involving more range of motion, or exercises involving increased speed of motion. Your exercise selection will be determined by your ability to adapt and the challenges that you need to prepare for.
So why would we follow this type of sequence? The reason is simple. Research demonstrates that balance is improved by exposing the body to variety of proprioceptively-enriched environments (progressively unstable, but controlled. This allows for proper feedback to be relayed from the nervous system to the brain, where it is processed and turned into a motor pattern (your new, effective way of doing things). Once enough good information has been digested by the brain and central nervous system, the appropriate movements will be initiated when needed. In short, good practice = good performance.
Now that you’re becoming familiarized with balance training, let’s review a few key components when performing balance training:
1. Choose exercises that are simple and safe
2. Choose exercises that are slightly unstable yet controllable
3. Make sure that you progress when necessary or able