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Balance Training 101

Why It's Important for Everyone
  -- By Jason Anderson, Certified Personal Trainer
What is with all the weird looking toys you see in the gyms, sporting goods stores, and fitness magazines today? We see funny looking things like a cut-in-half stability ball called a BOSU. There are the small circular "pillow discs" that are filled with air. Don’t forget about the other items like balance wedges, wobble boards, rocker boards, and indo boards. They look interesting enough, sometimes even fun, but what's the point of all these devices?

These fitness tools are specially designed to help people improve their balance. You may think that the elderly are the only ones who should be concerned about balance, but that couldn't be further from the truth.

Think back with me to when you were a kid. Do you remember some of the things we used to challenge each other to do? Things like “how long can you hop on one foot?” or “who can walk on the edge of the sidewalk the longest without falling off?” We didn't call it exercise or balance training then, but that is exactly what we were doing. Activities like these helped us to develop our balance and stability and to survive our youthful clumsiness. Today, top athletes in the world recognize that balance training helps them to perform better in their sports and fitness experts know that good balance and a strong core go hand in hand.

You don't have to be a world-class athlete to add a little balance training to your workouts. Plenty of simple exercises you can do at home (or at the gym) will improve your balance significantly. But if sticking a dismount or avoiding a tackle aren't on your list of daily priorities, why does balance training matter? Let’s look at the reasons why balance training is so important.
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Benefits of Balance Training
Let me spring a big word on you here: proprioception. It's the body’s ability to interpret and use information about your position in space. Through a complex system of environmental feedback, cues from the bottom of your feet, the relation of your inner ear to gravity, and what you see, your body senses which muscles to activate or deactivate to maintain your desired position. It does this when you stand, get up from a chair, or walk on the sidewalk. It also uses all of these cues when you're riding a bike, skiing, strength training at the gym, and standing on your tiptoes to grab something from a high shelf. When the information received is too complex to translate, the system gets overwhelmed and you lose your balance. But with practice and experience (i.e. balance training) you can master what once seemed like impossible tasks—just like you did when you first removed the training wheels from your childhood bike or made it to the bottom of the bunny hill the first time without falling.

By training to develop greater balance, you will recognize improvements in coordination, athletic skill, and posture. This in turn will result in fewer injuries and greater stability as you age, which can help prevent falls and keep you both strong and independent longer. These are the very benefits that have led many coaches, trainers, and athletes to incorporate balance training into their workouts. So how do you start?

Quick Balance Test
Here is a good test to evaluate your own balance. Stand up and imagine you're going to walk forward on a straight line, placing one foot directly in front of the other so that the heel of your front foot touches the toes of your back foot. Keep both feet flat on the floor. Hold that position and close your eyes. If you can maintain your balance for 30 seconds, you are doing pretty well. If you are wobbling just about as soon as you close your eyes—or before—your balance is poor. 

If you did not perform as well as you thought you should, it's OK. Let’s work on this together.

You don’t need to buy expensive equipment to improve your balance. You can do several exercises without any equipment. Check out this article for exercises you can do at home or the gym—without any special equipment. Try adding 5 or 10 minutes of balance exercises to your workouts three times a week. How can you tell if you are getting better? When you can maintain your balance during the various exercises (or the balance-training test above) for longer periods of time.

If you want to do some serious balance training (a good idea after you've mastered some of the basic exercises), you can choose from a variety of balance-training toys to help you reach your goals. If you have a gym membership, your gym may carry some or all of these types of equipment. While some are pricier than others are, keep in mind that balance-training equipment isn't necessary for improving your balance—it just helps you take it to the next level. In fact, a study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that balance boards and balls engage more muscle fibers in other areas of the body: the lower back (42-70% more exertion), lower abs (22-34% more exertion), quads (61-84% more exertion), hamstrings (33-70% more exertion), and calves (17-51% more exertion) compared to exercises done without those balancing devices. Here are three of the most common pieces of equipment to consider trying: <pagebreak> As you progress in your balance training, you can integrate balance and stability training exercises with other pieces of equipment. For example, you can perform squats on a balance board in the beginning, and as you get better, add some weight (dumbbells) to the exercise. For a greater challenge. combine multiple exercises, such as a squatting a BOSU ball with an overhead press. The possibilities are endless!

Balance training is good for people of every age, so get the family involved. Everyone from your preschooler to grandparents can benefit and, because it is so fun, they may not even recognize they are exercising! The best news is that you can start right now—and see improvements quickly!