The last in our 5 part Fitness Fundamentals series is BALANCE, which is the least sexy of our 5 and as a result the least well trained, but it’s super important and getting more so…
Kids fall over, Adults shouldn’t
For kids, falling over is pretty normal, and generally necessary. It’s a rite of passage to learn how to be more coordinated and balanced on your feet, even if an injury occurs on the journey. My five kids have all had their share of spills but my six year old is the stand-out faller, readily and randomly wiping out in the most unexpected of circumstances, as well as the expected ones too.
As adults, we take balance for granted, we also understand that it becomes a problem in the 3rd age but average markers of adult balance are now deteriorating rapidly and affecting ever younger adults, which is very concerning. Evidence shows that our more sedentary lifestyles, as well as rendering us inactive, are contributing to our ill-health at an alarmingly accelerating speed.
Like riding a bike, standing on two legs is an unparalleled feat of evolution, exclusively mastered by humans. The complex instability and balance mechanisms supported from inter-connected points on the body which send and receive messages from the brain, combined with subtle movements adjust and reset us, stopping (most of) us from falling. Many a comedian has lampooned a drunken stumble home, but according to the scientists, our ability to walk is only a marginal improvement on that. The marvel of a child’s first steps are rightfully celebrated by parents and family alike but we do take this wondrous ability for granted, and we definitely should not.
More broken record stuff, but Inactivity is a killer, literally.
Falls now sit second worldwide in the accidental cause of death rankings, behind traffic accidents. By definition an accident is blameless but do you really want that as the cause on your death certificate? Globally between 1990-2017 the total number of falls that lead to a death almost doubled.
I’ve fallen and I can’t get up (no really…)
I vividly remember a few years back, I was on the bus, stuck in a jam outside King’s College Hospital in South London, looking aimlessly out the window, watching, gazing at the steady flow of people going about their business. One particular lady, who was in her 50s, had tripped on the pavement, and unfortunately fallen to the ground. I checked to see if she was ok, and whilst clearly shocked, she wasn’t injured. What happened next dropped my jaw: She could not get to her feet again. As passers-by either ignored her or looked and stared, this lady tried to push and pull herself up from the ground by any means available, even holding onto a bollard, but she could not get back to her feet, only doing so when a kind soul helped her up. This was a horrible wake-up moment for me and the realisation that the state of the public’s general health was not where it needed to be. This lady was only in her 50s but was so deconditioned she couldn’t even stand up, get herself up. I wondered how she managed to walk upstairs, stand from sitting in a chair, get out of bed, carry a bag of shopping.
All of these physical failings are reversible. Strength is increased by activity, and so is balance but balance is more dependent on very specific exercises.
Get up, Stand up
There are some very simple tests we can do to measure balance. The simplest are timed stand on one leg tests with eyes open and closed. Get your stopwatch out, a friend or family member to record the result (and catch you) and time your ability to balance on one leg. Stay calm, spread your toes and perform the tests at least 3 times on each foot. Practice daily for a week and repeat again at the end of that week. 30 seconds with eyes closed is your minimum target but don’t be disheartened if at first you don’t succeed, keep trying and you will get there.
Errr, this is part 5 of our Fitness 5 folks, if you haven’t got the message, started regular activity, and you’ve read this far, the towel has officially been thrown from my keyboard and landed on the canvas…
Here’s where we need to get back to being kids again… Walk, hop, skip, run, bound, leap, jump over things and cycle (trikes if you have to). If you hate cyclists on the pavement, avoiding dog poo, puddles, uneven paving, why not use it as your personal assault course to nimbly side-step, and re-develop those ninja skills that have deserted you in recent years. If that sounds a bit too unrealistic/active/crazy in the short-term, try walking up and down the stairs without holding the handrail, doing so with precise and slow movements, balance on one leg and touch your index fingers alternately to your nose for as long as possible or add a squat to a single leg balance. If you are lacking confidence initially always undertake any balance exercises with something (or someone) to grab nearby in case you lose your footing.
Developing leg strength is also fundamental to underpinning balance and functional movement, as is working on your core strength. Your centre of gravity is around your pelvis and if you are wobbly around the mid-section, it won’t do your balance any favours.
Additional Workouts that can help include running, skipping, HIIT & Kick-boxing
The author is a former UK Decathlon champion, owner of ESPH, and hasn’t fallen over recently